German farmers denounce poor management of nitrate pollution case

Bernhard Kruesken, secretary-general of the German Farmer’s Association at a protest of Extinction Rebellion on 17 April in Berlin. [EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN]

The energy transition is bringing major changes to the agricultural sector. EURACTIV Germany spoke to the secretary-general of the German Farmers’ Association (DBV), Bernhard Krüsken, about Germany’s approach to reducing nitrate levels, droughts, and expanding grids.

Bernhard Krüsken spoke to EURACTIV Germany’s Claire Stam and Florence Schulz.

EURACTIV.de: In June last year, the European Court of Justice ruled in favour of the EU Commission and condemned Germany for violating the EU fertiliser regulation. How does one now act politically to ensure compliance with the ruling and reduce nitrate levels?

Krüsken: The Commission is over-interpreting the ruling of the European Court of Justice. In terms of implementation, it is also a matter between the German government and its federal states.

The German government has already reached agreements with the Commission to strenghthen the current German fertiliser regulation – the legislative body in charge being the German Federal Council (Bundesrat). Today, [16 April] representatives of the Bundestag and Bundesrat met to discuss this – the poor results of the vote are certainly being criticised.

But one thing is certain: The shortcoming identified by Brussels needs to be remedied within two years. That would be in May 2020, so the clock is ticking. Otherwise, there will be fines. However, we still have some room for manoeuvre as to how requirements are to be met. At the end of the day, the EU Commission needs to accept the proposed measures.

What is the problem in terms of content?

A critical point, in nitrate-sensitive areas, for example, is the reduction of permissible fertilisation by 20% of the plants’ needs. The Commission is pressing for this even though it is being met with criticism. It will cause a downward spiral because if there is less fertilisation, less will be harvested.

However, because fertiliser requirements are calculated on the basis of harvest expectations, the requirements for the following year will be automatically lower, and even then only 80% may be covered.

I imagine that the German federal states could find a solution to this problem. The EU Commission believes it can envisage other options as long as they have the same effect. Nitrate levels could also be reduced in other ways.

Another problem is the delimitation of nitrate-polluted areas. There are about 1,200 measuring stations nationwide. An area – which can be a relatively large region – is already classified as polluted if only 20% of the monitoring sites in the area are conspicuous.

Nevertheless, there are many sub-areas where the groundwater is completely fine. However, these will then be subject to stricter rules. German federal states must then be able to focus on the catchment area of conspicuous monitoring sites.

Farmers do not seem to be in favour of tightening the fertiliser regulation. There was quite a large demonstration in Münster. Why?

Farmers are affected to varying degrees by the strengthening of the fertiliser regulation. In some north-western regions, the effects of the 2017 fertiliser regulation are already having quite a considerable impact. Of course, action needs to be taken when groundwater is in a poor state. But people are upset by the approaches taken by the EU Commission and the German government.

In Germany, the regulation’s tightening was debated between 2013 and 2017. The previous regulation was deficient and had several loopholes. After all parties made their peace with the new regulation, it finally came into force in 2017.

During all that time, the EU Commission remained a spectator. Only a year after adoption, it continued to pursue its infringement procedure against Germany. That is poor political management, and the procedure should have resumed before.

Perhaps things would have been different had we concluded the new fertiliser regulation a year or two earlier. And the delay amounting to at least a year and a half can be attributed to the grand coalition because of differences between Social Democrats (SPD), Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Socialists (CSU).

2018 was a hot summer for us. What if that happens again?

No one can predict for certain whether there will be another drought this summer. But the trend is clear, weather conditions are getting more extreme for a longer period of time. These also surpass the farmer’s room for manoeuvre to protect against such conditions.

Economic security is also becoming more important. Farmers even draft their balancing sheets by taking potential crop failures into account.

Price crises could also occur, as they did in the dairy sector in 2015. We need to have the opportunity to develop revenue reserves within a tax framework.

We are also having intensive discussions with the insurance sector. Some providers are already working on multi-risk insurance in case of frost, heavy rain and drought. The market for such insurance is growing, but the offer needs to be attractive. So far, an insurance that covers everything including drought is not really worth it.

Let’s get to the subject of power lines. At the start of April, the German parliament passed the Grid Expansion Acceleration Act, commonly known as Nabeg. But the agricultural sector is not pleased. What do they want?

Agriculture has a fundamental interest in seeing the energy transition succeed. However, current compensations are absolutely unsatisfactory. Farmers and landowners are particularly worse off with underground cables rather than overhead power lines.

Underground cables massively disrupt soil structure. It requires digging eight metres wide and two metres deep, after which the ground needs to be restored. Once that is done, added layers of soil are permanently heated due to high evaporation levels. Heat therefore causes less earnings.

A question about the role of the German Farmers’ Association: A recent survey conducted by the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) showed that over a half of the surveyed farmers do not currently consider themselves to be well represented by the Association in politics. What are your thoughts?  

I think it is clear that NABU carefully chose the 300 respondents. If we asked 300 of our members whether NABU is a good representative for the conservation sector, we would probably see similar results. I wouldn’t take it so seriously. But we are connected by long-standing and intensive discussions. In bilateral talks, we usually find constructive and good approaches, but these soon disappear in public.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

Further Reading

COPA chief: 'All farmers should be connected to the worldwide web'

Being connected to the internet has become "vital" for farmers' everyday work, says Martin Merrild. But this should not encourage regulators to introduce new control programmes that will make farmers’ life even more difficult, he told EURACTIV.com in an interview.

Groundwater: Nitrate pollution will continue to be an issue across generations

For years, the EU Commission has warned Germany about illegally high levels of nitrate in groundwater. The European Court of Justice even ruled on the issue in June. Now, the German government is working on a new Fertiliser Regulation. However, the groundwater is expected to remain contaminated for many more years. EURACTIV Germany reports.

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