What kind of agricultural policy do Polish rivers and the Baltic Sea need?

polityki rolnej

In heavily transformed river catchments dominated by agricultural land, including intensively cultivated fields, agricultural areas are a significant source of nutrient loadings to surface waters. Pollutants eventually flow into the Baltic Sea, which is the most eutrophication-affected sea in Europe and even the globe. In 2008. Diaz and Rosenberg pointed out that the Baltic Sea has the world’s largest marine dead zone ( dead zone) – an area as a result of severe eutrophication that is deprived of oxygen and thus inaccessible to most of the plants and animals that inhabit the body of water.

The situation has been improving over the past decades due to the reduction of pollutant inflows, nevertheless eutrophication remains a very big problem affecting all parts of the Baltic Sea (EEA 2019) and, in order to achieve the goals of the Baltic Sea Action Plan to achieve good status of Baltic waters (HELCOM 2021), or the EU Water Framework Directive, further action is needed to significantly reduce pollutants entering Baltic waters.

Effective methods of counteracting pollutant runoff from land used as farmland or meadow or pasture rely on nature – the properties of natural and semi-natural ecosystems, mainly wetlands. These include strips and marshy buffer zones that separate ditches, rivers, reservoirs or valuable wetlands from agricultural land. They significantly complement the agrarian techniques of using fertilizers rationally and enriching the soil with organic matter.

As part of the project Wetland buffer zones and protection of Baltic Sea waters from agricultural pollution (English. Buffering and reducing Baltic Sea nitrate pollution by implementing natural-based solution) The National Society for the Protection of Birds has attempted to gather knowledge on nature-based solutions aimed at reducing area nutrient runoff (including primarily from agricultural land). In addition, an analysis was made of existing policies and programs in Poland in the context of regulations enabling the implementation of such solutions. The result of this work is a report Protecting surface water from pollution from agricultural land. Nature-based solution methods and opportunities for their implementation in Poland, which includes:

  • A brief analysis of the overfertilization of surface waters and the Baltic Sea (Dr. Agnieszka Bednarek, UNESCO Chair of Ecohydrology and Applied Ecology, Department of Biology and Environmental Protection, University of Lodz);
  • The characteristics of two types of nature-based methods – buffer strips and wetland buffer zones – along with a description of the ecosystem services they provide (Aleksandra Pępkowska-Król, OTOP, Zofia Bieńkowska, OTOP);
  • Characteristics of ecohydrological biotechnologies (Dr. Agnieszka Bednarek, UNESCO Chair of Ecohydrology and Applied Ecology, Faculty of Biology and Environmental Protection, University of Lodz);
  • An assessment of Polish agricultural policy for 2023 – 2027 in terms of requirements and incentives to protect and restore wetlands and aquatic ecosystems (Aleksandra Pępkowska-Król, OTOP);
  • Analysis of key strategic documents and policies to include wetland buffer zones (Pawel Pawlaczyk, Naturalists Club);
  • A cost-benefit analysis of creating or maintaining and the effectiveness of operating wetland buffer zones (Sviataslau Valasiuk, Warsaw Center for Ecological Economics, Faculty of Economic Sciences, University of Warsaw).

Polish agricultural policy to be amended

An important conclusion of the report discussed above is that the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy for 2023 – 2027 does not propose solutions in Poland that would encourage the restoration of buffer strips or wetlands (wetland buffer zones). And mandatory and optional measures to promote the protection of hydrogenic habitats are not sufficient.

Therefore, in the next step OTOP, in cooperation with experts of the Coalition Agriculture for Nature , developed guidelines for amendments and modifications necessary to be made to the Polish Strategic Plan for the Common Agricultural Policy for 2023 – 2027 (the document governing agricultural policy at the level of our country). Amendments have been proposed to existing requirements (applicable to all farms receiving direct payments of GAEC), as well as optional interventions. In addition, new incentives are called for to popularize nature-based methods. These are measures that reduce pollutant runoff, but at the same time provide many other benefits.

All the proposals have been collected in the document Protecting water and wetlands in agricultural landscapes. Proposed amendments to the Polish Strategic Plan for the Common Agricultural Policy 2023 – 2027 on nature-based practices for water conservation, retention and wetland restoration (to download ). The contents of the document were supported by the Living Earth Coalition.

Examples of demands for standards and solutions included in the strategic plan:

  1. As part of the second good agricultural practice standard for the protection of wetlands and peatlands, it is necessary to prohibit the restoration of existing and the creation of new drainage systems on land covered by the standard.
  2. The list of currently binding types of water areas/liquids/reservoirs, along/around which the requirements of the fourth standard for preserving buffer zones apply, should be expanded to include all natural watercourses, drainage channels and ditches (regardless of their width), as well as the most naturally valuable wetlands and bogs.
  3. In order to increase water retention in the agricultural landscape, it is crucial to increase the implementation and payment of the ecoscheme Water Retention in Permanent Grasslands.

The document also proposes the introduction into agricultural policy of ecoschemes and agro-environmental-climate interventions not yet implemented in Poland, which will enable the creation of vegetated buffer strips, the conversion of arable fields into permanent grassland, and the irrigation of degraded wetlands.

The urgency of taking action and its public support

Given the current scale of the environmental impact of farming, large-scale implementation of the proposed, often innovative agricultural solutions is urgently needed. It involves, among other things. The need to take educational measures in this regard. The effectiveness of the proposed interventions can also be increased by introducing their community application (joint action of neighboring farms).

The analysis of the cost-effectiveness of introducing the proposed solutions into agricultural policy should take into account the high social acceptance of bearing the costs of wetland restoration and protection. And farmers and agriculturists must be adequately compensated/rewarded for providing public goods, which are all ecosystem services resulting from the preservation of non-productive areas and wetlands in the landscape. The calculation of payments should take into account the value of such goods. Currently, this is not practiced. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, when working out payment amounts for ecoschemes and agro-environmental-climate interventions, takes into account only the benefits lost as a result of implementing these measures. This, unfortunately, is not enough.

Buffer zones in the Lower Wieprz Natura 2000 area

As part of the project Wetland buffer zones and the protection of Baltic Sea waters from agricultural pollution OTOP also decided to see what measures are needed to restore the continuity of the buffer zones in one particular area.

It was decided that this would be the Natura 2000 Lower Wieprz Special Habitat Conservation Area, which encompasses an extensive river valley with natural character in the lower section of the river. It is located in Lubelskie Province and covers an area of 8182.30 hectares. It is dominated by agricultural land, including primarily grasslands. Among the natural habitats under protection in the area, it is worth mentioning: oxbow lakes and natural eutrophic water bodies with Nympheion and Potamion communities, flooded muddy river banks, extensively used fresh meadows, lowland alkaline fens or riparian forests. So far, the area has not been protected as a Special Bird Protection Area, but it is nationally important for the preservation of many rare species. This fact is underscored by the site’s designation as an Important Bird Area(IBA).

Experts in the fields of botany, hydrology and ecological economics have proposed landscape management solutions for the valleys of the Lower Wieprz River and its tributaries, the implementation of which would allow the preservation, and where necessary the restoration, of marshy buffer zones. In the next step, experts assessed what economic and nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) runoff reduction benefits could be achieved.

The results of the analysis are presented in the study Buffer zones in the Lower Wieprz Natura 2000 area . For the headwaters of the Wieprz River and its tributaries in the Lower Wieprz Natura 2000 area, botanists Tadeusz Miśta and Wojciech Zwolski proposed 4 types of buffer zones in two variants: basic and extended. In the baseline variant, these were the continuation or restoration of extensive grassland use and, where necessary, the conversion of arable land into a grassland buffer zone. The second option additionally proposes riparian restoration through the planting of suitable tree species. The total area of the zones, regardless of the variant, is 8306.31 hectares, covering 20-meter strips along both banks of all the watercourses in the area.

An important conclusion of the analysis is that in the catchment area of a relatively well-preserved river like the Wieprz, its tributaries are the most problematic. A team of hydrologists, under the direction of Dr. Stanislaw Chmiel assessed that lowering the level of nutrients reaching the Wieprz River in the Natura 2000 area should include the creation of meandering channels on watercourses flowing into the river and work outside the Natura 2000 area. Only such measures will make it possible to reduce the leaching of nutrients into river waters by a dozen to even tens of percent.

Study Buffer zones in the Lower Wieprz Natura 2000 area shows the importance of proper landscape management of river catchments in the context of water quality protection. However, one should not forget the many other benefits provided by natural and semi-natural ecosystems that act as buffers. The topic is addressed in the third part of the study, in which economist Sviataslau Valasiuk attempted to analyze the costs and benefits of the proposed measures. The creation of marshy buffer zones in the catchment area, covered by the Lower Wieprz Natura 2000 site, is proving to be economically efficient. Moreover, the significant excess of benefits over costs indicates that it is possible to increase compensation to landowners for implementing pro-environmental measures. These are important arguments justifying the need to introduce adequately paid interventions for water conservation and wetland restoration into Polish agricultural policy.


Photo author: Wieslaw Król

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