Only slight improvements in German nitrate levels

Just over 26% of the groundwater in agricultural areas in Germany is contaminated with nitrate. The substance is formed in the soil when a lot of fertiliser is applied. [Shutterstock | AYA images]

This week, Germany must report the nitrate levels of its groundwater to the European Commission. According to media reports, the trend is slightly positive but even the Commission admits that a comparison with other EU countries is difficult. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The Federal Environment Ministry had to submit its annual nitrate report to the Commission on Tuesday (30 June).

As the online magazine agrarheute reported from its own sources, the nitrate pollution of German groundwater has improved only very slightly: According to the report, 26.7% of the monitoring stations were above 50 mg nitrate per litre, the value required by the EU Nitrate Directive. This is still 1.5% less than in 2016.

The Commission took Germany to court in 2016 as it considered that no sufficient political measures had been taken to curb the nitrate readings, which had been too high for years.

In 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in favour of the Commission, threatening Germany with extremely high fines of €750,000 per day unless changes to the fertiliser ordinance were made as quickly as possible. The application of fertilisers is considered the most important factor affecting nitrate levels in groundwater.

Under intense pressure, Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner (CDU) and Environment Minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) then worked out a compromise with the Commission to tighten the current fertiliser law.

On 1 May this year, a new fertiliser ordinance came into force in Germany. Among other things, it states that farmers in the so-called “red areas” will have to apply 20% less fertiliser from next year.

Farmers’ associations had massively resisted this and warned of a major economic loss for the farmers affected.

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Not all member states comply with the rules

The extent to which German nitrate levels are actually so bad is a highly controversial issue.

In fact, Germany deliberately reports only just under 700 measuring stations from agriculturally used regions to the Commission, instead of using its full network of 1,200 measuring stations, which are also located in forest areas or other regions. The reason for this is the EU Nitrate Directive, which actually stipulates such a selection of measuring points.

“By reporting only the monitoring stations under agricultural influence, we are, in our view, correctly implementing the requirements of the Nitrate Directive. Of course, if we were to include our entire monitoring network in the nitrate report, the result would be better. But this is not required”, said Falk Hilliges, an expert for groundwater protection at the Federal Environment Agency.

Other member states also report monitoring sites from non-agricultural areas to Brussels, the Commission confirms. This would mean that “there would be virtually no comparability of nitrate reports across Europe.”

The so-called EUA monitoring network, which is considered to be more representative, also says a slight trend for the better can be seen according to information from agrarheute: Compared to the last nitrate report, the proportion of polluted areas has decreased by 0.8% to 17.3%.

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Another problem so far has been the definition of “red areas.” This was done differently by each federal state but is now to be unified, as the Ministry of Agriculture announced last Friday (26 June). A federal-state working group had defined uniform criteria for the designation of the areas and for the number and quality of the measuring points.

Klöckner thus promised more transparency and comparability between the regions in Germany: “Understandably, nobody wants to be ‘arrested’ for something for which they are not responsible.” However, it is clear to everyone that things have to change where too much fertiliser has been applied, she said.

The changes to the areas are to be negotiated in the German cabinet on 12 August and, if possible, will come into force at the end of September, the Ministry of Agriculture wrote.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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