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Germany tightens water quality precautions

November 24, 2017

German farms will have to keep book on fertilizers and waste dung under tougher rules adopted by Germany's second parliamentary chamber. Brussels has long demanded remedies because of rising nitrate levels in waterways.

Landwirtschaft Düngen (Symbolbild)
Image: picture alliance/F. May

The Bundesrat, representing Germany's 16 regional states, on Friday passed amended rules — submitted by the last Bundestag parliament — requiring farmers to document nutrient inputs and outputs or accept a standard nitrate value per hectare.

Assuming acting Chancellor Angela Merkel's caretaker cabinet gazettes the "substance flow budget" ordinance, which adds detail to Germany's Fertilizing Act, it will come into effect on January 1 and will be reviewed in 2023.

It will apply to agricultural units of more than 30 hectares (74 acres) or with more than 50 head of large livestock such as cattle.

If a farmer declines to keep records individually, then a nationwide fertilizing limit of 175 kilograms (385 pounds) of nitrogen per hectare will be assumed for farmland.

Last year, the European Commission sued Germany on numerous counts for failing to uphold EU rules on water quality, especially on nitrate levels.

Last June, environmentalists and water utilities warned in a joint petition that excess chemical fertilizers, dung and liquid waste was polluting groundwater and resulting in higher costs at treatment plants to remove nitrates and phosphates to make water drinkable again.

Farm federations accused the utilities of unnecessarily frightening consumers.

Farmers spared impracticable tasks, says Schmidt
Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt praised the move, saying it spared farmers impractical tasksImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Carstensen

Avoids impractical tasks

Welcoming Friday's Bundesrat move, after months of inter-chamber and lobbying wrangles, acting federal Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) party said farmers could now "plan securely" and would not be confronted with impractical tasks.

Based on the principle of balancing farm inputs and outputs, farmers will have to document, for example, arrivals of fodder, fertilizers and crop seeds as well as the quality of liquid dung emitted and livestock dispatched, illustrating this in the substance flow budget [Stoffstrombilanz].

However, Greens party politician Robert Habeck pointed to potential weaknesses in the plan. The attempt to keep ledgers balanced was likely to fail in terms of the "devilish" details, said Habeck, who is currently serving as environment minister in Germany's northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein.

Farm enterprises could calculate low or tamper with readings, he said, referring to various nutrient bookkeeping options allowed under the draft regulation.

Habeck: "devil lies in the detail" of the new rules
Habeck: The "devil is in the details" Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Gambarini

Risk of tampering?

It could only be an "interim solution," said Social Democratic (SPD) agriculture spokesman Rainer Spiering, saying Germany still faced EU fines and coercive measures costing "many millions of euros."

Addressing the lower house of parliament last June — which has since been replaced following federal elections in September — outgoing SPD farm spokesman, Wilhelm Priesmeier, said the inability to enforce past rules made the new ordinance necessary.

"We all know about the condition of many waterways, especially in regions where we have dense farming and product processing," Priesmeier said.

Farm enterprises would either have to seek anti-pollution advice or "when he doesn't do so, then a fine is imposed. That's the right way."

ipj/kms (dpa, AFP)