Dairy farming – a major source of surface water pollution in the European Union

Rolnictwo mleczne

Surface water pollution, despite various ongoing activities aimed at reducing it, is still one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the European Union. In particular, intensive dairy farming in some regions of Europe, such as Ireland and Italy, contributes to water pollution through the use of fertilizers and pesticides. This situation highlights the need to find sustainable solutions for the agricultural sector that protect water resources.

Dairy farming and surface water eutrophication

Surface water bodies, along with groundwater bodies, are the main source of drinking water for entire ecosystems. Agriculture uses nitrogen, phosphorus and inorganic fertilizers as the main method of increasing yields. These fertilizers, stored improperly, applied in excess and improperly disposed of in wastewater, enter waterways. An excess of potassium and phosphorus causes eutrophication, which means overgrowth of algae and plants. This leads to a decrease in oxygen levels in the water, from which other, more sensitive aquatic organisms suffer. Fresh water is essential for human life, meanwhile, its reservoirs are the most polluted ecosystems in the world, which is a rather alarming fact.

According to the findings of the European Commission, agriculture is responsible for 77 percent. of total nitrogen discharge into the environment. The Nitrates Directive forces member states to combat excesses of this element, as well as phosphorus, monitor water quality and identify areas that produce large amounts of pollution and those particularly at risk of pollution. Phosphorus is mainly responsible for the eutrophication of fresh waters, while nitrogen is responsible for saline waters. These fertilizers also have a significant impact on groundwater. Between 2016 and 2019, more than 14 percent in all member states. groundwater exceeded the permissible concentration of nitrates set for drinking water, and this has health implications – nitrates in water can, among other things. Increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Dairy farming – low river levels exacerbate water pollution problem

Dairy farming is responsible for environmental pollution in several areas – first, it emits sizable amounts of greenhouse gases, and second, it contaminates local groundwater through improper handling of natural fertilizers, such as manure. The issue of local pollution is quickly becoming global, as nitrates enter the seas via rivers, so saltwater is also becoming polluted. The problem has been particularly exacerbated by falling river levels, as has been observed in northern Italy. In Western Europe, an estimated 25 percent of. nitrogen contained in animal feces enters the environment and has a real impact on human health.

Intensified dairy farming increases nitrate pollution of waterways. Enforcement problems and EU derogations

Overall, since the introduction of the Nitrates Directive in 1991, nitrate concentrations have fallen significantly, both in groundwater and surface water. The latest European Commission report, however, shows that the progress made over the past decade has been modest, and that agricultural nutrient pollution, also generated by dairy farming, is on the rise – a serious problem in many member states. The EU’s European Environment Agency acknowledges that in nitrate-prone zones, numerous farms have been granted derogations by the EC that allow them to farm with high densities of cattle. As recently as the end of 2015, they were allowed to exceed 170 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year from livestock manure.

EU countries are the world’s second-largest milk producers, after India. In 2015, after the EU abolished milk quotas, farmers stepped up. Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands, wanting to export more, led to overproduction. It is estimated that the EU produces approx. 155 million tons per year. Dairy farming is growing mainly in Germany, France, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands and Ireland. Fasciani and MacEarl’s research found that in Italy and Ireland, plenty of cases of contamination go undetected due to a lack of inspection personnel. The solution for member states could be remote sensing, which would help control algal blooms and detect over-fertilized fields, so that laws could be better enforced.

Dairy farming – projected production declines

Dairy farming mainly operates on the basis of using grasslands for grazing cattle and fields for humans and livestock. Natural fertilizers (manure, slurry) are used as fertilizer, in addition, farmers can use special concentrates to increase milk production. Intensification of livestock farming means the need for greater consumption of fuel oil, fertilizer, feed and other inputs, which also has a huge impact on the environment and rising costs.

Experts forecast that the number of dairy cows in the EU will fall below 20 million later this year, 1.7 million fewer than at the peak of production in 2016. and by 0.5 million relative to 2021. In the Netherlands, the government is trying to cut dairy production by 30 percent. and forces farmers to close their farms, prompting numerous protests. Not only economic and social considerations play an important role here – the liquidation of farms usually means the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of cattle.

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