Water pollution forces Europe to rethink its agricultural policies

A man angling on a sandbank on the southern shore of the Mar Menor lagoon in the Marina del Carmolí wetland in the autonomous community of Murcia, Spain. The Marina del Carmolí is a protected area into which three important watercourses of the Campo de Cartagena flow – the Miedo, Miranda and Albujón watercourses – and where large amounts of nitrates and sediments from agriculture are dumped (Ricardo Pérez Solero)

As the sun falls on Villananitos beach, an elderly couple silently observes the Spanish Mar Menor, one of the largest saltwater lagoons in Europe and a popular and often overcrowded tourist destination.

A year ago, in October, the couple watched in disbelief as thousands of sea creatures, fighting for their lives, flocked to the shore in search of oxygen. “I didn’t think there was so much fish here. It’s incredible what came out! Langoustines, seabream, sea bass, shrimp… very long eels came out, gasping for air because they couldn’t breathe,” says 73-year-old María del Carmen Villena, from Cuenca, who has been coming to her holiday home in the municipality of San Pedro del Pinatar for almost 20 years.

In the end, over three tonnes of animals were found dead according to the regional government’s estimates. The evidence was irrefutable: the Mar Menor was critically ill. Eutrophication – the uncontrolled growth of algae due to the accumulation of nutrients, mainly from agricultural fertilisers (nitrates and phosphates) – was lowering the water’s oxygen levels and the strong autumn rains had altered its salinity, triggering the ecological disaster.

The diagnosis came as little surprise, following the fateful scenes of 2016 when, after decades of declining water quality, algae blooms turned the Mar Menor green and blocked out the light, leading to the elimination of 85 per cent of the seagrass. Numerous scientific studies indicate that the chief culprit is the nitrate from intensive irrigation farming in Campo de Cartagena, which exports fruit and vegetables to countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom and France. Mining spills and the precarious sewage systems of its overcrowded coastline have also contributed to the polluting of the Mar Menor.

Effective food security. But what about water security?
The Murcian lagoon is not an exception within Europe, but it is one of the most striking examples of the clash between the European Union’s environmental and agricultural policies: the intensive agriculture it promotes is a clear threat to the sustainability of watercourses and aquatic ecosystems. In a report published in 2018, the European Environment Agency itself recognised agricultural production as a key source of the pollution affecting rivers, lakes, coasts and aquifers, despite specific EU legislation (the 1991 Nitrates Directive) designed to tackle the problem.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which manages direct aid to farmers and funds regional agricultural development in the EU, has been singled out in several European documents for its ineffectiveness in fostering a shift to more sustainable agriculture. The CAP, one of the founding pillars of EU policy, accounted for 34.5 per cent of the EU budget in 2020 (€58.12 billion, around US$68 billion).

Currently, Brussels is still discussing legislative proposals on the CAP’s seven-year plan for 2021-2027, seeking to bring it into line with the European Green Deal – the sustainability roadmap for the next 30 years – and with the EU Water Framework Directive adopted in the year 2000. One of the goals is to reduce excess nutrients (especially phosphorus and nitrogen) by 50 per cent and fertiliser use by 20 percent by 2030.

“The CAP is absolutely crucial to meeting many of the goals of the European Green Deal, including reducing nutrient losses into the environment,” said European Green Deal spokesperson Vivian Loonela in an email to Equal Times.

The most recent European Commission report on the implementation of the Nitrates Directive between 2012 and 2015 shows that 19 per cent of European rivers and 26 per cent of European lakes were affected by eutrophication.

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The Commission nonetheless recognises that the degree of water monitoring varies greatly from one country to the next and is not always adapted to the specific pressures on each individual area. In some countries, the groundwater is also increasingly ‘polarised’: the cleaner areas are improving and the more polluted areas are getting worse.

Intensive livestock production areas such as the Atlantic coast of Brittany or the drainage basin of the Baltic Sea in northern Europe have also seen serious bouts of eutrophication, which have forced national governments to recognise the problem and have, in turn, obliged the EU to reappraise its agricultural policies. As seen in these cases, the manure that is left over or used to fertilise crops to feed livestock is washed away by the rain or seeps into waterways and ends up in the sea.

And the problem is not only threatening the marine ecosystem. In Brittany, over recent years, the decomposition of algae that collects on beaches and coves, and releases toxic hydrogen sulphide gases, has been associated with the deaths of people and animals found collapsed on the shore.

Loonela says that nitrate pollution in agriculture has generally decreased over the last two decades, but acknowledges that it “continues to cause problems for many member states”. The European Commission has opened proceedings for breaches of the Nitrates Directive against around one-third of member states and some cases, such as those involving Germany or Greece, have gone as far as the Court of Justice of the EU.

Similar proceedings have been initiated in Spain, which may go as far as the European courts and lead to economic penalties being imposed on the country. Santiago Pérez, who belongs to the third generation of a family of farmers who grow crops in the Campo de Cartagena, says that European aid has been the main driving force behind the agricultural development in the area and the shift from dry farming to intensive irrigation.

“A considerable amount of the aid from Brussels has gone to agriculture, to the tune of 50 per cent of the investments into machinery, into technology, into everything,” said Pérez, in a telephone conversation with Equal Times. “It [the EU] has put food security above everything else.”

For the Murcian farmer, the problem with nitrates, as opposed to other contaminants such as pesticides, is that they are much more difficult to monitor. The produce Pérez sells can be checked for quality standards compliance by any large European retailer, and can be traced back to the producer, but checks on the amount of nitrates used and nitrate losses have to be done at source.

“The laws need to be enforced by those who are here, not by Europe. Europe gives guidelines; there are negotiations for everything there,” says the farmer.

Pérez argues that the whole sector cannot be put in the same bag and intensive agriculture that respects the environment is possible, whilst acknowledging that, for decades, subsequent administrations have done nothing to tackle the “absence of a legal framework” in Campo de Cartagena.

Although the members states have direct responsibility, the financial might of agricultural aid means that it can be a driving force for change. Sophie Trémolet, director of water security for The Nature Conservancy’s Europe office, points out that the largest European investments in environmentally friendly solutions come from agricultural subsidies and agri-environmental measures.

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“The funding is not allocated in a coordinated way, which means that if it goes to individual farmers, it cannot be used to invest where it is most effective. That is what has happened in the Mar Menor, and what is lacking is a comprehensive approach,” says Trémolet.

In a report published in 2019, The Nature Conservancy points to the CAP’s overall ineffectiveness in dealing with the environmental problems created by its agricultural subsidies and the use of agrochemicals. In addition, existing “green” requirements have focused more on the climate and environment than on the Water Framework Directive.

The European Court of Auditors (ECA) has been very critical of the so-called “green payments” introduced under the CAP in 2013 and allocated to farmers implementing environmentally friendly practices. In a report published in 2017, the ECA points to their very limited impact, given the complexity of greening, the overlap with requirements for other direct payments and the absence of clear objectives.

Aware of the criticism that one of the jewels in the crown of European policy has come up against, the European Commission announced major reforms under the new CAP (2021-2027): it will tighten the conditionality in terms of the environmental standards attached to direct aid and replace green payments with a scheme that encourages and rewards individual, crop-specific fertilisation plans. “The Commission’s proposal will help to improve nitrogen management on crops and farms,” says Loonela.

However, environmental organisations such as Greenpeace are not as optimistic about the changes proposed for reforming the CAP and bringing it into line with the European Green Deal.

The Water Framework Directive set the ambitious goal, originally for 2015, then 2021, of all European waters reaching a “good chemical and ecological status” level by 2027. A recent study by the Polytechnic University of Valencia calculates it will take at least nine years before we start to see the benefits of the measures proposed to clean up the Campo de Cartagena aquifer, which has been polluted for decades by agricultural fertilisers and which is connected to the Mar Menor.

These measures, similar to those proposed in a law passed in July to recover and protect the lagoon, restrict the use of fertilisers throughout the basin and oblige large farms to measure them, as well as establishing a 1,500 metre protection strip between the crops and the shore, where only organic and precision farming is allowed within 500 metres of the water.

María del Carmen Villena watches the sunset on Villananitos beach, oblivious to the plans of the EU and the government. This year, the water is clearer than last year, but the retired couple chose not to swim, having seen the amount of fish and crustaceans that died there en masse in 2019. Even so, and with the permission of the rows of buildings crammed together on the horizon, they enjoy the surrounding landscape. “This is like paradise,” says her husband Pedro Cebrián. “But the worst thing is that they don’t know it,” she replies.

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