This article is part of our special report Polluted air: the invisible killer.
European policies on tackling agricultural emissions are insufficient, according to auditors. Although solutions do exist, the cost and time factors often mean farmers are not capable of implementing them.
Agriculture is responsible for 95% of ammonia emissions, which contribute to the formation of harmful secondary particulate matter. Three-quarters of it comes from manure and 20% from inorganic fertilisers.
Ways to cut ammonia emissions include improved livestock feeding strategies, more effective ways of using fertilisers and closed manure storage.
However, farmers claim they have neither money nor time for these solutions.
Not only finance
“We would all like to farm sustainably, but the prices often don’t even cover our cost and certainly don’t cover investments,” said Doris Letina of the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA), during the Clean Air Forum in Bratislava.
She claims farmers should benefit from easier access to know-how about sustainable farming, because they lack the time to look for the information themselves. “Sustainable farming also needs a lot of data, for example about the soil. We also need access to that,” she added.
Non-organic farms should also be eligible for green finance according to Letina, because even they can do at least some of the green measures.
The farmer doesn’t like the talks about farmers being the “bad guys” polluting the air. She stressed people tend to forget that farmers make sure they have enough to eat in the first place.
This is something Slovak agriculture ministry state secretary Gabriel Csicsai also agrees with.
“We promised healthy and cheap food to our people. The number of EU citizens rises, the quality of life rises, so we need more and more food. We cannot be all vegetarians and the livestock production is still necessary,” he claimed adding that he is sceptical towards any zero emission targets.
According to him, emissions of ammonia can never be zero. He believes “the solution is to find a technology that could make use of the ammonia before it pollutes the air”.
Agriculture has a special position in the EU economy, according to the Austrian ministry of sustainability and tourism.
“Given the market demands and in particular the strong pressure on prices in agriculture, measures to reduce emissions from agriculture have to keep a stronger eye on financial aspects,” said Austrian minister Maria Patek, whose speech was delivered by her deputy, Günter Liebel.
However, Austria is still convinced that some regulatory measures are most likely necessary. Other important steps are awareness raising through access to training, national and international research, knowledge and best practices.
Cooperation of ministries
In Austria, environmental farming was strengthened by connecting the agenda of environment and agriculture under the ministry of sustainability and tourism.
This ministry emerged in 2000 and quickly created the Austrian Agri-Environmental Programme, which is being updated on a regularly basis.
It consists of 24 measures for which farmers can get additional financing from the EU and national funds. Today, about 80% of all Austrian farms are actively participating in the Programme.
Csicsai believes that Slovak ministries do not have a problem cooperating on tackling air pollution in agriculture. “The problem is to find a way to put it to practice,” he insisted.
But Austria confirmed a rise in ammonia emissions, despite the ongoing efforts. “Our cattle population is sinking since 1990, but this trend did not lead to sinking ammonia emissions,” stated Liebel. One possible explanation is a change in the cattle husbandry system.
Most Austrian farmers now keep animals in open pens and therefore enjoy high animal welfare standards. However, emissions rise as a result.
Another rise in animal welfare might lower the pollution, though. Pasture grazing comes hand-in-hand with the lowest ammonia emissions.
Austrians would like to see the impact of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) on the ammonia emission reduction obligations maximised.
However, according to Phil Owen from the European court of auditors, the CAP does not yet have enough tools to lower emissions in agriculture.
Auditors are sceptical towards the new CAP proposal as well. Despite the Commission’s claims they could not find higher ambition for protecting the environment there. They also think that payments according to land size are not economically justifiable.
They have high expectations from the European Green Deal and new Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski who coauthored a critical report of the auditors about the new CAP proposal.
Mauro Poinelli of the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development promised that the reformed CAP will take the needs of the environment into consideration and will consist of tools that will increase the potential for change.
He also highlighted that the CAP is not the only tool EU could offer when fighting the ammonia emissions.
Not all farms are equal
The panelists agreed that the problem of air pollution is different when considering small and big farms.
“It is important to know that Austria has a small-scaled agriculture with mostly family run businesses. This structure has to be considered when we talk about successful ways to reduce ammonia emissions,” claimed the minister’s deputy.
Small farms are making the biggest progress according to Patrick ten Brink form The European Environmental Bureau (EBB). He underlined that 80% of manure is produced by 4% of the largest farms. And they also receive grants from the CAP.
“We should think about income security for small farmers and food security for all of us, but not about profit security for big farmers,” claimed Brinka.
He also underlined that in some European policies, there are already distinctions between big and small producers, for example in fisheries. He believes that this approach is necessary in agriculture as well.