14 Apr 2015: Report

With Too Much of a Good Thing,
Europe Tackles Excess Nitrogen

In Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries, European governments are beginning to push farmers, industry, and municipalities to cut back on fertilizers and other sources of nitrogen that are causing serious environmental harm.

by christian schwagerl

Only seconds after Claudia Wiedner drops the metallic rod into the gray waters of Lake Scharmützel, 30 miles southeast of Berlin, the probe starts sending signals back to her computer. On a cold, foggy day in March, Wiedner, a limnologist at the Brandenburg University of Cottbus-Senftenburg, and a research technician are out on the water in their small vessel to investigate nitrogen pollution.

The water samples they pull up tell an encouraging tale — at least in this lake. "We have been measuring reactive nitrogen and phosphorus in this
collecting phytoplankton
Claudia Wiedner
Scientists use a net to collect plankton in the waters of Lake Scharmützel in Germany.
lake since 1993 and what we see is a change for the better — levels have dropped considerably," Wiedner says. Her colleague, Ingo Henschke, an avid diver and former fisherman, can attest to this, saying that better sewage treatment and a decrease in nearby farming have significantly improved water quality.

“I was able to document a return of large swaths of stoneworts algae and the rich water life they sustain," Henschke says.

But Scharmützel Lake is an exception in Germany — it serves as a kind of gold standard for positive changes. For like the rest of Europe and much of the world, Germany’s waterways are suffering from a surplus of nitrogen that is spread across fields as fertilizer, pours off of farms where livestock and chickens are raised, or flows out of factories, sewage systems, and wastewater treatment plants. The result is harmful algal blooms in lakes, dead zones in oceans, and an impoverishment of terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity — problems that the European Union is now trying to address.

"We are observing a wide range of severe negative changes in the environment due to excess reactive nitrogen," says Wiedner, who is the project coordinator of a flagship research project called “NITROLIMIT.” She says there is growing concern among European environmental scientists and agencies that nitrogen pollution has been ignored for far too long. NITROLIMIT, funded by the German federal government, includes
The farming lobby is working hard to stop legislation to constrain the release of nitrogen.
30 researchers from six institutes. The team has studied 370 lakes in northeastern Germany, but only one quarter were classified as being ecologically healthy.

Throughout Germany, up to 600,000 metric tons of ammonia — a nitrogen molecule concentrated in liquid manure from animal farming — finds its way into streams and lakes each year, according to Ulrich Irmer, head of water policy at Germany's Environmental Protection Agency. Earlier this year, the agency warned in a report that urgent changes are needed to reduce nitrogen pollution, including farmers managing their fertilizer use much more efficiently and consumers eating less meat.

In the basin of the Untere Havel, a river that runs through western Berlin, researchers from the NITROLIMIT project determined that nitrogen pollution would have to be reduced from 6,500 tons annually today to 3,500 tons in order to restore a sound freshwater ecosystem. Implementing the necessary changes, such as boosting organic farming along the river and building retention ponds for urban stormwater, would cost more than 60 million euros.

But all over Germany, from the Untere Havel basin in the east to meat-producing North Rhine-Westphalia in the west, the farming lobby is working hard to stop legislation that would constrain the release of nitrogen into the environment. Being able to dump manure in the landscape is a key factor in producing cheap pork and other meats for the domestic and Asian markets.

In Europe, politicians concerned about the environment tend to be preoccupied with carbon emissions and climate change. But the environmental consequences of nitrogen are increasingly difficult to ignore. The German Advisory Council on the Environment, Chancellor Angela Merkel's central body of experts, sounded the alarm bell in January with a scathing report. It said that while Germany prides itself on its high recycling rates and its "Energiewende" — its aggressive transition to a nuclear-free renewable energy supply — nitrogen pollution remains largely unchecked.
Germany ‘can't keep claiming to be a leader in green policies if it does not address the nitrogen problem.’

"The country can't keep claiming to be a global leader in green policies if it does not address the nitrogen problem," says council member Heidi Foth, a toxicologist from the University of Halle. According to the council's report, one quarter of Germany's groundwater bodies are contaminated with excess nitrogen and half of all terrestrial habitats are negatively affected by it. Across Europe, the problem of nitrogen pollution is especially acute in areas with intensive industrial animal farming, in particular the so-called "pig belt” that stretches from Denmark, across northwest Germany, to the Netherlands.

Nitrogen is a chemical element all living beings need to grow and sustain their bodies in a form that chemists call "reactive." Until the early 20th century, the supply of reactive nitrogen was limited by nature. Farmers could only fertilize their fields with the nitrogen that circulated between soil, air, plants and animals, or add a little guano dung imported at high prices from remote Pacific islands.

This changed fundamentally when, around 1910, German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch found a way to extract the gas most abundant in the atmosphere — nitrogen in its "non-reactive" form — and turn it into fertilizer and other useful chemicals on an industrial scale. That's when modern agriculture took off. Today, a third to a half of all humans are fed thanks to this "Haber-Bosch process."

But fertilizer is applied in such huge quantities on fields that it gets washed out into streams, lakes, and the oceans, where it severely impacts ecosystems. Cars and factories that burn fossil fuels add nitrogen, which had been stored underground for millions of years, to the atmosphere.
Human activities add more than 150 million tons of nitrogen to the biosphere each year.
Today, an estimated 150 million to 200 million tons of nitrogen are added to the biosphere through human activities each year. The total amount of nitrogen being cycled through ecosystems on land and in the oceans has doubled since preindustrial times.

According to a 2011 landmark study by Britain's Natural Environment Research Council, damages from excessive reactive nitrogen in the environment cost the countries of the European Union between 70 billion and 320 billion euros per year due to air and water pollution, outweighing the direct economic benefits in agriculture.

Contrary to intuition, habitats with a shortage of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are richest in species. The shortage stops any one species from becoming dominant and facilitates a healthy competition between many species. Added nitrogen only helps a small number of species that can best metabolize it.

"If you add nitrogen to a species-rich ecosystem, a few plant species will thrive while a majority lose out," says Peter Munters, who, from his base at the Netherlands’ Ministry of Economic Affairs, is in charge of an initiative to rein in nitrogen pollution. Munters said that diverse heathlands become monotonous grasslands, while bogs and dunes are overgrown by bushy vegetation. Rare species vanish. "Nitrogen is making our landscapes homogeneous," Munters warns.

The Netherlands is one of the world's nitrogen hotspots. Agriculture is extremely intensive, with vegetables, flowers, and meat being produced on an industrial scale. As a result, each hectare of agricultural land receives more than 200 kilograms of surplus nitrogen per year. The effects of intensive animal farming, fertilizer use in the Netherlands' agricultural sector, and industrial nitrogen emissions have become so severe that the government has decided to act.

Obliged to protect its diversity of plants and animals under national and European law, the Dutch government launched a strategic plan this year designed to decrease the total amount of nitrogen deposition in the country’s 160 nature reserves protected within the European "Nature 2000" network. Munters says the government will spend 60 million to 80 million euros per year to reduce nitrogen deposition in the reserves and restore the sites.

The Dutch scheme includes some radical measures. From 2016 on, workers with excavators will move into some nature reserves to remove topsoil containing excess nitrogen, says Imke Boerma from Staatsbosbeheer, the Dutch agency in charge of nature reserves. He cautions that taking
For each of the five million people in Denmark, there are four pigs on Danish farms.
nitrogen out of nature reserve will only show effects if there is a sustained long-term effort.

Denmark is another country with a huge nitrogen problem. For each of the five million Danes, there are four pigs on a Danish farm. Like Germany and the Netherlands, the Scandinavian country imports huge amounts of soy feed from South America to produce equally huge amounts of meat that then is exported, often to China. The meat leaves the country, but what stays in Denmark is the nitrogen from liquid manure that gets sprayed onto fields.

But Denmark has led the way in tackling the problems. It has decreed that farmers must apply fertilizer at least nine meters away from streams and lakes. Also, working with environmental agencies, farmers must establish strict nitrogen budgets, with fines for overuse of fertilizer. Nitrogen surplus per hectare fell from 170 kilograms in 1992 to 100 kilograms in 2010, according to data from the University of Aarhus.

"Our discharges into the Baltic Sea and the North Sea have dropped by approximately 50 percent over the past three decades as a result of numerous Danish action plans in agricultural areas and reducing output of nitrogen and phosphorus from households and industries," says Stig Pedersen, chief adviser at the Danish Nature Agency.

But even at that lower level, ecological effects remain severe. In his office in downtown Copenhagen, Pedersen displays a map of Denmark showing where the country has not yet reached the "good ecological status" mandated by the EU's water directive. Pederson acknowledges that most coastal waters in Denmark are still polluted by excess nitrogen.

In certain river basins, new wetlands are now being constructed to purify the water. Pedersen says that the 1,000 hectares of new wetlands that have been created in the Odense River basin alone act as an "ecological liver"


How Industrial Agriculture Has
Thwarted Factory Farm Reforms

industrial agriculture has thwarted factory farm reforms
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Robert Martin, co-author of a recent study on industrial farm animal production, explains how a powerful and intransigent agriculture lobby has successfully fought off attempts to reduce the harmful environmental and health impacts of mass livestock production.
that removes unwanted nutrients.

"It takes time until you see what you get for your money," says Pedersen. "But when excess nitrogen goes, life comes back."

In Germany — Europe's largest economy and most populous country — how reductions can best be achieved on a large scale is being hotly debated. The EU commission has already threatened to sue Germany for a lack of action over nitrogen pollution. Irmer, of Germany's Environmental Protection Agency, points to new legislation that will require each of the 285,000 farms in Germany to submit a strict nitrogen-budgeting plan, beginning in 2018. The agency plans to establish nitrogen limits for water bodies based on ecological criteria.

The government's Advisory Council on the Environment wants to go one step farther and reduce Germany's massive consumption of meat, now at 60 kilograms (132 pounds) per capita per year. Advocates are seeking to remove tax advantages for animal products and to introduce tough fines for nitrogen pollution. They even want to change behavior at the thousands of canteens in ministries and other state-run institutions, requiring them to serve mainly vegetarian dishes or halved portions of meat.

POSTED ON 14 Apr 2015 IN Business & Innovation Energy Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Water Europe North America 


Great article. Thanks for reviewing the state of affairs in Europe. It is the same or worse all over the world.

In Ohio USA they shut down the drinking water to 500k people last year, for three days, due to toxins caused by the blooms in Lake Erie.

Unfortunately a lot of damage has been done, and unless reports like yours become daily in the news, I am afraid a lot more damage is yet to be done.

There are solutions to this problem, as there are solutions to every problem.

The solution is not to stop farming.... but to reduce or eliminate the chemical fertilizers and animal waste used. The solution is to replace it with a cost effective organic product which delivers increased plant health and yield, without adding to the downstream accumulation of nutrients.

It is time for a Paradigm Shift in Agriculture.

Good work on this.
Posted by Aaron Morrison on 22 Apr 2015


Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Email address 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.

christian schwagerlABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christian Schwägerl is a Berlin-based journalist who writes for GEO magazine, the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, and other media outlets. He is the author of the book The Anthropocene — The human era and how it shapes our planet, which was published in English in 2014. Schwägerl also heads the Bosch Foundation's masterclass on the future of science journalism.



High Stakes on the High Seas:
A Call for International Reserves

Marine protected areas in national waters have proven successful in helping depleted fish stocks to recover. Now, there is growing momentum for the creation of extensive reserves on the high seas as a way of reversing decades of rampant overfishing.

Pressure Mounts to Reform Our
Throwaway Clothing Culture

Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually — 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child. In the U.S. and around the world, a growing number of environmentalists and clothing industry executives say it’s time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.

Can We Reduce CO2 Emissions
And Grow the Global Economy?

Surprising new statistics show that the world economy is expanding while global carbon emissions remain at the same level. Is it possible that the elusive “decoupling” of emissions and economic growth could be happening?

New Green Challenge: How to
Grow More Food on Less Land

If the world is to have another Green Revolution to feed its soaring population, it must be far more sustainable than the first one. That means finding ways to boost yields with less fertilizer and rethinking the way food is distributed.

Can Data-Driven Agriculture
Help Feed a Hungry World?

Agribusinesses are increasingly using computer databases to enable farmers to grow crops more efficiently and with less environmental impact. Experts hope this data, detailing everything from water use to crop yields, can also help the developing world grow more food.


MORE IN Reports

High Stakes on the High Seas:
A Call for International Reserves

by nicola jones
Marine protected areas in national waters have proven successful in helping depleted fish stocks to recover. Now, there is growing momentum for the creation of extensive reserves on the high seas as a way of reversing decades of rampant overfishing.

For China’s Polluted Megacities,
A Focus on Slashing Emissions

by mike ives
The booming industrial center of Shenzhen is a showcase for Chinese efforts to cut CO2 emissions and make the nation's burgeoning cities more livable. But it remains to be seen whether China's runaway industrial development can give way to a low-carbon future.

Rocky Flats: A Wildlife Refuge
Confronts Its Radioactive Past

by fred pearce
The Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver was a key U.S. nuclear facility during the Cold War. Now, following a $7 billion cleanup, the government is preparing to open a wildlife refuge on the site to the public, amid warnings from some scientists that residual plutonium may still pose serious health risks.

Pressure Mounts to Reform Our
Throwaway Clothing Culture

by marc gunther
Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually — 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child. In the U.S. and around the world, a growing number of environmentalists and clothing industry executives say it’s time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.

The New Green Grid: Utilities
Deploy ‘Virtual Power Plants’

by maria gallucci
By linking together networks of energy-efficient buildings, solar installations, and batteries, a growing number of companies in the U.S. and Europe are helping utilities reduce energy demand at peak hours and supply targeted areas with renewably generated electricity.

Sticker Shock: The Soaring Costs
Of Germany’s Nuclear Shutdown

by joel stonington
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to rapidly phase out the country’s 17 nuclear power reactors has left the government and utilities with a massive challenge: How to clean up and store large amounts of nuclear waste and other radioactive material.

How to Restore an Urban River?
Los Angeles Looks to Find Out

by jim robbins
Officials are moving ahead with a major revitalization of the Los Angeles River – removing miles of concrete along its banks and re-greening areas now covered with pavement. But the project raises an intriguing question: Just how much of an urban river can be returned to nature?

How Growing Sea Plants Can
Help Slow Ocean Acidification

by nicola jones
Researchers are finding that kelp, eelgrass, and other vegetation can effectively absorb CO2 and reduce acidity in the ocean. Growing these plants in local waters, scientists say, could help mitigate the damaging impacts of acidification on marine life.

Vanishing Act: What’s Causing Sharp
Decline in Insects and Why It Matters

by christian schwägerl
Insect populations are declining dramatically in many parts of the world, recent studies show. Researchers say various factors, from monoculture farming to habitat loss, are to blame for the plight of insects, which are essential to agriculture and ecosystems.

For India’s Captive Leopards,
A Life Sentence Behind Bars

by richard conniff
As sightings of leopards in populated areas increase, Indian authorities are trapping the animals and keeping them in captivity — often in small cages without adequate food or veterinary care. The real solution, wildlife advocates say, is to educate the public on how to coexist with the big cats.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

Ugandan scientists monitor the impact of climate change on one of Africa’s most diverse forests and its extraordinary wildlife.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.


A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.