Agricultural Production and Soil and Water. How the Nitrates Directive protects the environment in the European Union

Agricultural Production and Soil and Water. How the Nitrates Directive protects the environment in the European Union

Environmental protection and  care for sustainable development have become one of the bases of the European Green Deal. The climate change is accompanied by a growing concern for water resources, both from the environmental and social perspective. For this reason, one of the key areas of environmental protection and Common Agricultural Policy is water protection, one of the most important resources for our planet. The Nitrates Directive lays down the rules for waters protection within agricultural sector. It is one of the earliest pieces of EU legislation aimed at controlling pollution and improving water quality [1]. As the time passed, the Nitrates Directive was followed by more new regulations limiting the negative impact of the agriculture on the environment. Today, in many UE regions this directive guarantees an ethical animal production with respect for the environment.

The main goal of the Nitrates Directive is protection of waters in the whole Europe by restraining the ingress of  agricultural origin nitrogen to the surface and ground waters. Actions in this area have been taken in the European Union for almost 30 years now and as a result, according to the studies, the water quality has been improving[2]. What’s more, the European Union as a Community is an example for other countries and regions which have not implemented such practices[3]. The effect of such actions is lower production of fertilizes consumption of which has decreased by about 25% since  the 1980s. It is worth emphasizing that the fertilizers commonly used in the USA such as urea or ammonia are subject to expanding restrictions in the EU[4]. All these limitations aim at ensuring environmental protection and in a consequence the improvement of the quality of food produced in better environmental conditions.

The evolution of the Nitrates Directive introduces new areas of limitation, from the mineral fertilization and the types of used fertilizes to an increased pressure on better management of the animal production and its by-products. A very good example is the policy limiting the use of nitrogen, regardless whether it is mineral or natural, to 170 kg kilograms of pure nitrogen for one hectare of farmland[5]. In addition to this, there are also imposed fertilization limits for majority of plants grown on European farms. Another important aspect is using the fertilizers at the right time – in some countries the fertilization is allowed only when the soil is at an appropriate temperature and is not frozen[6] in order to limit the nitrogen losses caused by its’ leaching. These regulations are not just theory but years of practice. Many farmers are trained each year in proper fertilizing in order to limit the impact of fertilizes on the environment[7].

Another important point of the directive is metabolite management and control of the manure use. In some regions of the EU countries, each farm producing manure is obliged to ensure adequate infrastructure for storage and distribution of this kind of fertilizers[8]. The farmers can obtain additional financial support for constructing roofed, tight tanks and purchasing machines that apply liquid manure with limited emission of accompanying gases[9]. The farmers are also obligated to indicate whether manure unused at their own farm was used by other farmers in an appropriate manner. These regulations resulted in a tight system ensuring the appropriate quality of soil and waters in the European Union. It is worth mentioning that lack of such regulations caused serious disputes in North America[10][11].

The European Union has been caring for the environment for a long time, and the Nitrates Directive is a formalized example of such care. Such legislation makes us confident that the impact of animal production on the environment is controlled and has been significantly limited, preventing the pollution of our most important common resources – clean water and environment.