Progress of environmental protection in agriculture too slow

Extinction of species continues unabated – nitrogen inputs too high – fewer pesticides in groundwater

tractors on a fieldClick to enlarge
Extinction of species, erosion – Progress of environmental protection in agriculture is too slow.
Source: Knut Ehlers / UBA

The pace of environmental protection in the agriculture sector over the past 30 years has clearly been too slow. Many known problems such as high nitrogen inputs to soil and air remain unsolved despite improvements. In 1985 some 90 percent of land area exceeded critical loads for nitrogen; today that figure still hovers at 50 percent. "New problems are being added to the old, due for example to the plastics or microplastics traced on and in agricultural soils. These are issues which were not even on the agenda in 1985", said Maria Krautzberger, President of the Federal Environment Agency (UBA). A study done on behalf of the UBA has investigated how pollution from agriculture has changed since 1985.

The status of groundwater has improved over the past years. "We welcome the fact that pesticide pollution in groundwater has been reduced. This is due mainly to the stringent regulations governing the authorisation of chemicals in Germany and the EU. However, rivers, streams and lakes continue to be exposed, in particular when farmers clean their spraying equipment near waters or on the farm", said Ms Krautzberger. The washwater can transport pesticide residues from the farm into sewage systems, which then are not adequately degraded at wastewater treatment facilities.

Although there has been some progress as concerns nitrogen (N), good chemical and ecological condition nationwide is far from being achieved. Nitrogen is a vital nutrient for all organisms but too much does damage to the environment. Too much slurry in regions with high livestock production causes groundwater concentrations of nitrate (NO3-) to exceed limit values. UBA recommends mixing slurry and chemical fertilisers into soils quickly and maintaining adequate distances to streams, rivers and lakes. Excess slurry from regions with high livestock production should be used nationwide in compliance with best practices. The amendment of the Fertilisers Ordinance promises to better harmonise the use of fertilisers, and slurry in particular, with the requirements of environmental protection. The imminent federal ordinance on facilities for dealing with water-endangering substances (AwSV) aims to ensure better protection against leakages from facilities which store liquid manure, slurry and silage leachate.

Nitrogen pollution of the air in the form of ammonia (NH3) is still too high. Ammonia is a precursor of respirable particulate matter whose production must be contained for the sake of good health. Furthermore, German law on ammonia is in conflict with EU law: according to the National Emission Ceilings Directive, Germany's emissions of ammonia may not exceed 550 kilotonnes per year but currently Germany does not comply consistently with this upper limit. Poultry houses and pigsties which require an operating permit will in future justifiably be required to install exhaust air cleaning systems. The UBA recommends introducing a similar requirement for cattle sheds.

Soil protection in Germany has been regulated by law since 1985. The agriculture sector fulfils its requirement to exercise preventive soil protection by implementing best practices. Direct payments are only disbursed in full if all land areas maintain good agricultural and ecological status. In reality, erosion, detrimental compaction and humus decomposition are still occurring. Short crop rotations, late row crops or heavy machinery continue to be allowed. There are solutions on hand, however: conservation tillage, strip tillage, permanent cover cropping, or cultivation of catch crops.

The contamination of agricultural soil with plastic and microplastics was not yet an issue in 1985. The probable sources are the residues of the foils, sludge and composts which are used in agriculture. Valid estimates of the amounts of such inputs are needed first before effective reduction strategies can be developed.

The new study was published as a follow-up on the 30th anniversary of the publication of "Environmental Problems of Agricultural Production" special report by the Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU) in 1985. The special report brought about a number of improvements, but Germany is still struggling with some well-known problems in a few areas. Former SRU Chairman Prof. Dr Wolfgang Haber said: "It is particularly unfortunate that the attempt to reverse the trend in the protection of species has failed. Species and their biotopes are still on the decline in our agricultural landscape. A significant part of our biodiversity is being lost and will be very hard to restore."

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