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Fertilizer Regulation Study: Nitrate Pollution Is Linked to Agriculture

While Germany is set on tightening its fertilizer regulation after the EU Commission sued the country for excessive nitrate levels in groundwater, a new study has found there is a clear connection between groundwater pollution and the agricultural use of the affected areas. Based on data collected from 2012 to 2016, the study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) published on Wednesday (26 February) linked agriculture and particularly animal fattening with groundwater pollution.
While nitrate levels are usually significantly lower in forest and grassland areas, significantly higher values are found in agricultural areas, in which the nitrate level average is about 28%, compared to the national average of only 18%. In agricultural regions, researchers found not only more frequent, but also significantly higher levels of pollution, which exceed the permitted maximum value of 50 milligrams per liter by up to seven times. But the fact that about one-third of the water measuring points in agricultural areas are above the limit is nothing new.
In Germany, the debate about the fact that the government only includes measured values from the agricultural sector in its nitrate report, which it sends to Brussels every four years, has been heating up. Besides, it is known that not all EU member states adhere to the rule of only transmitting measuring points from agriculture, as many report lower nitrate levels from their forest and grassland areas. The study is novel in the sense that it is the first systematic study of the relationship between land use and nitrate pollution of groundwater in Germany.
About 50% of the nitrogen compounds in the soil are attributable to the sector, but what’s left comes in equal parts from industry, the transport sector and private households. Besides, local conditions such as the speed of water flow or soil properties can also cause nitrate to be concentrated in certain places. The fact that nitrate could also run into the groundwater from the sewage pipes of residential areas, as some people claim, has only a very minor influence, explained Falk Hilliges, expert for groundwater protection at Germany’s Environment Agency. “From our point of view, this plays only a marginal role in the overall view,” he said.
In order to avert the European Commission’s ongoing infringement proceedings, which could end up with possible fines, Germany’s ministry of agriculture and the environment have been working feverishly on an amendment to the fertilizer regulation in recent months and submitted it to the Commission in mid-February. If the Bundesrat approves the draft on 3 April, the new, significantly stricter regulation could come into force this summer. Only then will the Commission decide whether to discontinue the infringement proceedings or not, a spokeswoman for the newspaper Agrarheute confirmed. Other member states, including Denmark and the Netherlands, have also successfully reduced their nitrate surplus in recent years.

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