IW Learn DEF
The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe



Farmers are friends, not foes
(January 3, 2006) 

Farmers do hundreds of jobs most of us would rather avoid. Some of us even call farmers enemies of the environment - from animal killers to soil spoilers. In the Danube River Basin, farming was recently charged as a main water polluter.

Toxic growth. Dozens of toxic chemicals are released into the waters of the Danube River Basin (DRB) with serious threats to the environment, states the ICPDR's "Danube River Basin Analysis 2004", the first ever comprehensive analysis of the Danube environment and pressures impacting it. Many come from agriculture.

"Farmers need agro-chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilisers, to sustain yields and produce good quality crops," says Dirk Ahner, Deputy Director General for the EC's Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development. "Yet, the excessive or inappropriate use of these substances can contribute to water pollution through the leaching or run-off of nutrients and pesticides, and through the emission of contaminants from agricultural by-products and waste."

Pesticides in DRB waters generally increase down-stream. "Alarming concentrations" can be found in the lower Danube and in some tributaries, says the Danube Analysis report. The DRB includes 29 of the EU's list of 33 "hazardous priority substances". Eleven are agricultural pesticides. Many are used in producing cereals, rapeseed, sunflower, maize, orchard fruits and grapes. Only three are authorised in all countries while a shocking seven are not authorised in any country, many having been left in old stockpiles, some in flood-prone areas. A big concern is from DDT, a pesticide banned in Europe - in Danube samples taken, 71% exceeded permissible levels.

Non-nutritious nutrients. Few are aware of nutrient pollution from agriculture - for example, from nitrogen. One main source is the poor or overuse of nitrogen fertilisers for crops. Many farmers apply them at the wrong time of year or in the wrong areas. Some don't consider the crops being fertilised - after a certain amount, further benefits from fertilisers stop and even reverse.

Another source of pollution is the over-production and poor handling of solid manure and liquid waste from raising livestock. Manure can be a good natural fertiliser for crops, depending on the area of cropland available. So, on many farms, nearly half of all live-stock waste becomes pollution. Some farmers try to store it properly. Others pile it on the grass or dump it into streams.

The result is that, for decades, too much nitrogen has been getting into DRB waters. Mixed with large nutrient inputs from untreated municipal (human) and industrial waste, this caused nitrogen loads to double from the 1950s to mid-1980s. Nitrogen levels are still too high. Agriculture is now the biggest source of nitrogen in the DRB with a 39% share. It's in second place for phosphorus emissions with a 32% share.

The biggest impact from nutrient pollution is "eutrophication" which reduces oxygen in the water, de-creases plant and animal species and worsens water quality. Danube nutrient pollution has helped create a severe ecological imbalance in the Black Sea. Nutrients, notes the World Watch Institute, have become one of the world's biggest pollution problems.

Farming intensity on the rise. In the former communist countries, extensive farming - using more land area, less fertilisers and pesticides - was preserved in many areas, especially in remote hills and mountains such as Romania's Carpathians. Small farms survived through strong local demand, limited foreign competition and state support.

That situation has drastically changed. The end of communism brought major reductions in state support and access to markets. Free trade meant competition with powerful western agro-companies and their cheaper products. Many large state-owned and smaller family farms closed while cities and other types of work lured young farmers away. On the other hand, one positive result was a big drop in nutrient pollution and fertiliser use in the DRB, while pesticide use declined by 40%.

Smaller eastern farmers new to the EU hoped that EU accession would improve their lot. But a recent reform process of the EU's Common Agricultural Po-licy (CAP) is intent on reducing subsidies for farming. This could mean that, without enough subsidies from either the state or the CAP, eastern production me-thods won't be able to compete with larger companies - especially those now buying up large tracts of near-by lands given lower costs and taxes. If that happens, intensive farming and pollution into DRB waters could rise again.

Meeting the law. One of the best tools to ensure Danube waters stay clean is the EU's Water Frame-work Directive (WFD). EU countries are obliged by law to meet WFD objectives including achieving "good environmental status in all water bodies" by 2015. It also requires the complete phase-out of all 33 hazardous substances within 20 years.

An early milestone was each country's assessment of the water bodies within their boundaries, including whether they risked failing to meet the WFD. This was done for four "risk categories" including hazardous substances and nutrients. Some river basins, of-ten crossing many countries, also did this - hence the success of the Danube River Basin Analysis.

The assessments show that many water bodies across the EU may not meet WFD objectives and that one of the main reasons is pollution from farming, especially from nitrogen and phosphorus. Results from the Danube Analysis specifically don't fare much better. In total, percentages of the entire DRB "at risk" or "possibly at risk" are 55% from nutrient pollution and 73% from hazardous substances. The Danube Delta is "at risk" from hazardous substances and nutrient pollution. All Black Sea coastal waters are "at risk" from nutrient pollution and "possibly at risk" from hazardous substances. And agriculture is a main cause.  Danube countries now need to develop a "Danube River Basin Management Plan" by 2009 on how to meet the WFD by 2015. This will include actions to reduce the impacts from agriculture.

"The Austrian farmers I've worked with want a good relationship with the land," says Johannes Wolf of NGO "Distelverein". "Sometimes they need to do jobs they know may hurt the environment. But if they can be convinced that a change will be economically and ecologically beneficial, they will do it."

A less intense CAP. Sustainable agriculture with less intensive practices is needed for the entire DRB with reductions in fertilisers, pesticides and nutrients, says the Danube Analysis report. "Measures could include the extensification of production, conversion to organic cropping or changes in land use," says Stavros Dimas, the EC's Commissioner for the Environment.
"The CAP of today is very different from what it was 15 years ago," says Ahner. "The integration of environmental concerns into agricultural policy has been one of the main priorities in the last decade of reforms of the CAP." The 2003-04 reforms and the new Rural Development Regulation are the latest steps.

Reform of the CAP's " first pillar" should help de-couple income support from production and "is expected to reduce incentives for intensive production". Mandatory "cross-compliance" has made granting of payments to farmers conditional on their respecting environmental laws including the EU's Nitrates and Groundwater directives - the WFD is not yet linked, but may be in the future. Reform of the CAP's second pillar, rural development programmes, made implementation of the WFD one of three environmental priorities for rural development for 2007-13. The "meeting standards" measure provides farmers with temporary support for compliance with demanding new standards such as the WFD. And new training measures should make farmers more aware of less polluting techniques.

Interestingly, rural development "agro-environmental schemes" now support farmers working beyond conventional farming practices such as raising crops and animals to "farming services" naturally provided by the environment. This could mean switching land-use from growing crops to increasing water retention and flood control on their lands.

Changing behaviour in the field. Many farmers aren't aware of the environmental problems they cause; let alone how to solve them. Many turn to local farming associations or even "agricultural pharmacies" for guidance but these often advise conventional methods.

The Danube Regional Project (DRP) recently launched a $600,000 project to help DRB farmers reduce pollution by encouraging the use of "best agricultural practices" (BAP). Examples of BAP include reducing over-fertilisation and improving manure storage. A demonstration project in Vojvodina, Serbia and Montenegro will develop practical farm management techniques and guidelines for training workshops across the lower Danube. It will assess inventories of agricultural fertilisers and chemicals currently used in the DRB. Finally, it will make recommendations to Danube governments on how to modify national policies and laws to reduce pollution from farming, for example through improved links between the WFD and CAP.

Reform and realities. The CAP exists primarily to assist farmers and agriculture. "When looking for the final combination of measures, a balance will need to be struck between objectives as diverse as water protection, safeguarding and enhancing other environmental resources and the landscape, maintaining and improving the competitiveness of our agriculture, and creating new opportunities for growth and jobs in rural areas," says Ahner.

Dimas adds that the EC must be "sufficiently flexible to take account of any socio-economic problems caused in trying to meet" environmental directives. EU countries can get exemptions, such as extension of deadlines beyond 2015, if they can show major negative impacts to their agricultural sector. "We need to find win-win solutions that have benefits for farmers and the environment alike."

Friends not foes. As the second millennium closed, the question was farming "or" environment in Europe. Many now realise that neither will function properly without mutual respect and understanding. Farming is being redefined in Europe with the opportunity that farmers can be true friends of nature through providing us with healthy food or environmental ser- vices such as protecting us from floods or purifying our drinking water. But only if they benefit themselves.

Learn more about the DRP activities related to agriculture and water pollution

This article was written for the Danube Watch by Paul Csagoly, who is a communications consultant with the UNDP/GEF Danube Regional Project through which he assists by writing stories about people and nature in the Danube River Basin.