Europe

Pesticides and tap water: What does the future hold? 


In December 2019, the European Commission presented the European Green Deal – “a roadmap for making Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050” – which has ever since become a buzzword for its environmental policy. Protecting biodiversity, greening of the Common Agricultural Policy, and the so-called Farm to Fork strategy are at the heart of the Green Deal.

The Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies lay out a plan “to reduce by 50% the use and risk of chemical pesticides by 2030 and to reduce by 50 percent the use of more hazardous pesticides by 2030”. But in the wake of the war in Ukraine, rising energy prices, and food and fertiliser shortages, the proposal to reform  the legislation on the Sustainable use of pesticides has been poorly received by the member states. 

“The countries have basically adopted the industry’s discourse, and now demand additional impact assessment from the European Commission,” says Nina Holland, a researcher on pesticides from Corporate Europe Observatory, a lobbying watchdog. If the Commission accepts drafting further impact assessments, this will probably set the proposal back by months. Whatever the outcome of the discussions might be, it will take time for the decisions to be transformed into measures affecting farmers. 

Moreover, the Commission has already watered down its proposed ban on all pesticide use in so-called sensitive areas, Holland warns. Then, in November 2022, the Commission published a non-paper, which outlines elements to reconsider by the Member States such as “moving away from a total ban towards a restriction of the use of the least harmful pesticides,”  and “allowing most pesticides in agriculture in ecologically sensitive areas.” The latter would also weaken the regulation on the use of pesticides in the water abstraction catchment area.

Delays and inconsistencies 
Other environmental texts that should have helped achieve the Green Deal strategic goals have already been delayed or risk being sidelined. The Commission’s working plan for 2023 is set to delay commencing the reform of REACH, the EU’s chemicals legislation, until the last quarter of 2023. Since the European Parliament elections are in 2024, the fear is that the legislation will not be improved under this Commission. The Nutrient Action Plan, which aims to deliver the European Green Deal target of reducing nutrient losses by 50 percent – and fertiliser use by 20 percent – before 2030, has been delayed, with no clear publication date on the Commission’s agenda. In November 2022, the Commission outlined a series of measures and policies related to the availability and affordability of fertilisers that emphasise support to farmers and fertiliser producers. 
Farming differently

At the Farm of the Future, in the Northeastern province of Flevoland, in the Netherlands, researchers from the University of Wageningen work with farmers to figure out how some of the EU’s objectives could be reached with the help of technology and by using different cultivation methods. The Netherlands is a global agricultural powerhouse, where 53.9 % of the land is used for agriculture. The country of just 41.540 km² is the second largest exporter of agricultural goods in the world, after the US, in terms of export value (€96.6 billion in 2020).

“We need and can design high-yield food production systems, because we will need to feed 9 billion people in ten or twenty years,” says the project leader, Wijnand Sukkel, who has been working in farming systems development for the past 35 years. “In order to make [the food production] all-around sustainable, we need to take into account everything from [nitrate] pollution, water scarcity and […] the depletion of resources such as fossil fuels or phosphorous.”

Wijnand Sukkel, the project leader of the Farm of the Future project in August 2022. Lelystad, the Netherlands. Credit: Jelena Prtorić
Wijnand Sukkel, the project leader of the Farm of the Future project in August 2022. Lelystad, the Netherlands. | Photo: Jelena Prtorić

On the farm, Sukkel and his colleagues – researchers and farmers – explore agri-forestry systems, planting crops in strips with flower hedges in between, every 50 meters, to preserve the diversity of insects, and also employ precision technology. 


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 “Take organic farming for example – organic doesn’t mean low tech. It can really be executed much better if you use technology. If you grow onions, you could either choose to put in 200 hours of hand labour per hectare for weeding or buy a high-tech machine and then do it for about 10 hours of hand labour,” Sukkel says.

Current farming systems encourage the use of heavy machinery, which costs a lot and obliges farmers to specialise and work with large surfaces of monocultures in order to remain profitable. But since monocultures are also more susceptible to certain diseases than mixed-crop systems, the elimination of large mono-crop growing areas would result in better natural protection of crops. “Also, specialised robots could be employed to treat infected plants with a minimal quantity of pesticides – I am confident we could reduce the amount of pesticides by 90 percent. And if we remove heavy machinery from the fields, we could ultimately reduce soil compaction, which negatively impacts soil fertility,” Sukkel says.

Not everyone finds the argument that technology is part of the solution to be convincing. Nina Holland from Corporate Europe Observatory points out that the “argument about digitised and precision farming is used by the agro-industry to make up for potential losses resulting from pesticide reduction.” New GM techniques and the drone spraying of pesticides are part of that agenda. And many biological farmers insist on “natural solutions.” 

Jean-Christophe Richard, a former pesticide salesman who turned to bio farming after being diagnosed with cancer, which he believes to have been work related, is among them. Richard is a co-president of La Confederation paysanne, a French farmers’ union that defends an ecological and farmer-friendly type of agriculture, for the region of Loire Atlantique. He and his three associates have a farm of 210 hectares outside of Nort-sur-Erdre, where they produce about 480,000 litres of cow’s milk, with 65 cows, every year. They also have 150 hectares of meadows where they plant cereals every 5–8 years. As a certified biological farm, they use only manure from their own cows as fertiliser, as well as 50 tonnes of ground limestone per year, which neutralises soil acidity. 

“I won’t have issues with pests in my cereal crops, if before that I have left the soil to rest and grow into meadows. This combats soil erosion, improves the uptake of nutrients, so that we don’t need to overdo fertilisers,” he says. Richard regrets the fact that the biggest fund available to EU farmers, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), is still awarded per hectare. “It would be better to have the distribution of subsidies [be] per farmer rather than per hectare. Or the number of hectares should be capped – that would curb land grabbing, as well,” he believes.

The new old farm subsidies

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, launched in 1962, is enshrined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union as a comprehensive subsidy system, with the objective of providing direct income support for farmers since the 1980s. It consists of two pillars: the first, accounting for approximately three-thirds of the CAP’s budget, provides hectare-based payments to farmers, who must comply with some (basic) environmental requirements. The second, generally viewed as underfunded compared to the first, focuses on rural development, and also provides support for a number of ecological measures, such as conversion to or maintenance of organic farming.

The new post-2020 CAP was supposed to restructure the subsidies system and provide incentives for more climate- and biodiversity-friendly farming practices, namely through the so-called eco-schemes. “The eco-schemes are a good add-on [to the new CAP], but the overall policy structure hasn’t really changed. Most money still goes to direct payments based on the number of hectares,” says Katharine Heyl, research assistant at the Research Unit Sustainability and Climate Policy in Leipzig, Germany. 

Eco-schemes are funded by a share of the money from direct payments: approximately 25 percent is the minimum stipulated by the EU, although the Member States can go beyond that threshold. But these schemes are also voluntary, so the farmers don’t necessarily need to adopt them. Moreover, the payment levels might be too low in certain countries and, while the environmentally beneficial programs enacted under the second pillar of the CAP last for 5–7 years, the eco-schemes are annual, which is likely too short to achieve any real changes in the domain of biodiversity.

Finally, when it comes to specific issues such as nutrient pollution, the CAP doesn’t address the underlying drivers of unsustainable fertiliser management, such as intensive livestock farming or excessive fertiliser use. “The subsidies should promote restoration of nature, such as sustainable management of peatlands and wetlands, avoidance of soil erosion, and other measures that will limit the nutrient pollution,” says Heyl, “but the CAP alone, being a subsidy scheme, is not an instrument that is efficient, effective, and suitable, in terms of reinforcement, to address the issue of phosphorous and nitrate pollution.”

The CAP is poised to remain a great source of frustration, both for farmers, because of the excessive bureaucratic load it entails, and for environmentalists, because they still regard it as unlikely that it will help to deliver on the objectives of the Green Deal. In 2021, BirdLife Europe, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), and the WWF European Policy Office analysed 166 draft eco-schemes, concluding that “only 19% are likely to deliver on their stated environmental objectives, 40 percent need significant improvements to be effective, and 41% are completely misaligned with the Green Deal objectives.”

Another worrisome analysis of the subsidy policy comes from a 2021 report by the European Court of Auditors, focusing on the impact of agriculture on water quantity. They found that the current system authorising water abstraction and water pricing mechanisms contains many exemptions for agricultural water use. Only a few CAP schemes link payments to strong sustainable water use requirements. Overall, projects aimed at improving sustainable water use are less common than those that are likely to increase the pressure on water resources, such as new irrigation projects.

According to an analysis by the European Environment Agency, about 30 percent of Europe’s population is affected by water stress during an average year, and “the situation is expected to worsen as climate change is increasing the frequency, magnitude, and impact of droughts.” In 2022, European waterways were hit by a brutal months-long drought. Water abstraction affects up to 17 % of the total groundwater body area and 10 percent of the total river length in the EU Member States, while water abstraction for agriculture is unevenly distributed, and almost 90 percent occurs in southern Europe, a region that is already badly impacted by summer droughts. 

Excessive water abstraction results not only in water scarcity, it also impacts water quality, with increasing concentrations of pollutants such as chemicals, nutrients and organic material This summer, at least 300 tons of dead fish were pulled from the Oder river in Germany and Poland. At first, German and Polish authorities were at odds as to what had caused the environmental disaster, but they both ended up blaming toxic algae growth, sparked by an increase in salinity. While the scientists couldn’t determine what had caused the high salt content, they highlighted the fact that the river ecosystem had been under great stress in the summer, due to droughts and extreme heat. Low water levels exacerbated the presence of toxic substances in the water, and caused the deaths of living organisms; a scenario that is likely to repeat itself as long as we continue to put pressure on our waterways.


About this investigation
From the beaches in Brittany, France, to the groundwater of Aragon, Spain; from the fertile plains of the Netherlands to the prosecco hills in Italy, we have looked into how progressive European Union water protection policies get watered down through limited monitoring and data collection; how the industry has managed to postpone important environmental texts using gaps in scientific knowledge, and how water pollution has impacted the lives of communities and aquatic environments throughout Europe.
This investigation is published within an in-depth research on water pollution in agriculture supported by a 2022 Bertha Challenge Fellowship. You can check out the project website here: Troubled Waters.



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