This article is part of our special report Agriculture.
SPECIAL REPORT / Agriculture remains a major threat to water quality in Europe, according to the latest report by the European Union’s environmental agency. But farmers and EU policymakers are also quick to highlight the trade-off between conservation objectives and pressure to increase food production.
At a time when other sources of pollution have cleaned up their act, the European Union’s environmental watchdog reports that intensive farming practices are contributing to “significant loads of pollutants” in surface water.
The European Environment Agency, in a new assessment, reports that 48% of streams and lakes in the EU will fail to meet good ecological status by 2015 as required by the 2000 Water Framework Directive.
Excessive nutrients from fertilisers are a leading problem, the EEA report says, with one consequence being the growth algae that chokes off oxygen to fish and plant life in lakes, streams and bays.
“Agricultural production is becoming increasingly intensive, with high input of fertilisers and pesticides, in turn resulting in significant loads of pollutants to the water environment through diffuse pollution,” the EEA says in a new report on Europe’s water status.
The European Commission’s Water Blueprint, released a day later on 15 November, calls for better enforcement at the national level of EU laws designed to reduce pollution “from nutrients and/or other chemicals from agriculture, households and industry.”
Lifting food supplies
But the fight against pollution is destined to run head-on with concern about food security.
There is growing pressure, in Europe and internationally, for farmers to be more productive to address tighter food supplies, rising prices and a population forecast of 9 billion – from 7 billion today – by mid-century.
In recent years, severe droughts in the United States, Australia, Russia and East Africa fuelled commodity speculation and food price rises, but also exposed the vulnerability of supplies and the need for longer-term supply certainty.
In the European Parliament, these concerns have struck a chord with key policymakers.
“Unlike my green colleagues, I understand the value of nutrients,” British MEP George Lyon, a Scottish farmer and Liberal-Democrat member of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee, said at a recent round-table on fertilisers and food security. “If it hadn’t been for nutrients, agricultural production today would be below World War II levels.”
Farm, fertiliser and crop protection groups say the smart use of nutrients and pesticides can boost yields while minimising harm to the environment.
In October, the Fertilizers Europe industry association launched its ‘DAN’ campaign – directly available nitrogen fertilisers – to encourage the measured use of nitrate and ammonium forms of nitrogen, which the industry says can improve yields and reduce leaching of minerals into fresh water. Pesticide groups have launched similar campaigns for farmers.
The industry also says better use of fertilisers pays another environmental dividend –improved productivity reduces the need to clear forests and fallow land for farming, especially in rapidly growing developing countries.
Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has among the world’s least productive farmland yet food demand forces farmers to clear forests or natural grasslands. Scientists say it’s not entirely a human-made problem – the continent has vast areas of dessert and marshland that are unsuitable for crops or grazing, and in many other areas soils are high in salinity and acids.
A newly published United Nations Human Development Report on Africa, which focuses on food security, also cites crop failure and low productivity, scare fertilisers and rudimentary irrigation practices as leading factors in food shortages in Sub-Saharan Africa. UN figures show that African farmers on average remove four times more nitrate nutrition during harvests than they return to the soil – a recipe for the gradual destruction of farmland’s productivity.
Environmentalist are wary of intensifying agriculture in both advance and developing countries, arguing that reducing food waste is a better way to ensure sufficient supplies and that chemical nutrients not only have consequences for freshwater supplies, but also eventually harm the soil.
Some experts say there has to be a mix of practices to both feed and protect a growing planet.
Ben Woodcock of the British National Environment Research Council advises farmers – and policymakers – to mix intensive farming with the development of buffer areas and natural habitats that can protect water bodies, improve soil quality and nurture wildlife work as pollinators and prey on pests.
“The problem is it can’t go both ways. If you keep damaging crop land, if you keep reducing the overall area of semi-natural habitats, these ecosystem services will actually decline,” he told EURACTIV.
Woodcock, of the council’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said that the post-second world war green revolution, the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides brought about an initial increase in yields, “but what’s happening more and more now is that this is gradually levelling off.”
“If we are going to continue to increase crop yields over the future,” he said, “we’re going to have to make use of more than just conventional management practices – so pesticides, fertilisers, this kind of thing. We’re going to have to make increasing use of other ecosystem services, so that’s going to be natural pest control, pollination and all of these are … likely to add notable increases in crop yields over the long term.”
Tim Benton, a University of Leeds professor of population ecology, sees environmental advantages to using fertiliser to boost farm output.
“The biggest environmental cost of agriculture is the conversion of new land, and that also has the biggest climate change consequences and the biggest biodiversity consequences,” said Benton, who serves as Britain’s Champion for Global Food Security.
He said getting more production out of land can work in advanced countries as well as in developing nations, which are squeezed by the double pressure of feeding more people and a rapidly rising middle class.
“It all comes down to being smart about things,” he told EURACTIV. “We’re pushing in Europe for increased precision agriculture, resource-use efficiency, and so on, to limit [environmental] damages, and there is no reason why you can’t be sensible about it anywhere in the world, including small-holder agriculture.”