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"

ALSO FROM YALE e360

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.
READ MORE
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 

COMMENTS


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.
Regards,
Aaron
Posted by Aaron Morrison on 22 Apr 2015


POST A COMMENT

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.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
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.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


With Trump, China Emerges
As Global Leader on Climate

With Donald Trump threatening to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, China is ready to assume leadership of the world’s climate efforts. For China, it is a matter of self-interest – reducing the choking pollution in its cities and seizing the economic opportunities of a low-carbon future.
READ MORE

The Methane Riddle: What Is
Causing the Rise in Emissions?

The cause of the rapid increase in methane emissions since 2007 has puzzled scientists. But new research finds some surprising culprits in the methane surge and shows that fossil-fuel sources have played a much larger role over time than previously estimated.
READ MORE

The Rising Environmental Toll
Of China’s Offshore Island Grab

To stake its claim in the strategic South China Sea, China is building airstrips, ports, and other facilities on disputed islands and reefs. Scientists say the activities are destroying key coral reef ecosystems and will heighten the risks of a fisheries collapse in the region.
READ MORE

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.
READ MORE

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.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


How Tracking Product Sources
May Help Save World’s Forests

by fred pearce
Global businesses are increasingly pledging to obtain key commodities only from sources that do not contribute to deforestation. Now, nonprofit groups are deploying data tools that help hold these companies to their promises by tracing the origins of everything from soy to timber to beef.
READ MORE

How Warming Threatens the Genetic
Diversity of Species, and Why It Matters

by jim robbins
Research on stoneflies in Glacier National Park indicates that global warming is reducing the genetic diversity of some species, compromising their ability to evolve as conditions change. These findings have major implications for how biodiversity will be affected by climate change.
READ MORE

Full Speed Ahead: Shipping
Plans Grow as Arctic Ice Fades

by ed struzik
Russia, China, and other nations are stepping up preparations for the day when large numbers of cargo ships will be traversing a once-icebound Arctic Ocean. But with vessels already plying these waters, experts say the time is now to prepare for the inevitable environmental fallout.
READ MORE

How Forensics Are Boosting
Battle Against Wildlife Trade

by heather millar
From rapid genetic analysis to spectrography, high-tech tools are being used to track down and prosecute perpetrators of the illegal wildlife trade. The new advances in forensics offer promise in stopping the trafficking in endangered species.
READ MORE

African Wetlands Project: A Win
For the Climate and the People?

by winifred bird
In Senegal and other developing countries, multinational companies are investing in programs to restore mangrove forests and other wetlands that sequester carbon. But critics say these initiatives should not focus on global climate goals at the expense of the local people’s livelihoods.
READ MORE

Ghost Forests: How Rising Seas
Are Killing Southern Woodlands

by roger real drouin
A steady increase in sea levels is pushing saltwater into U.S. wetlands, killing trees from Florida as far north as New Jersey. But with sea level projected to rise by as much as six feet this century, the destruction of coastal forests is expected to become a worsening problem worldwide.
READ MORE

On College Campuses, Signs of
Progress on Renewable Energy

by ben goldfarb
U.S. colleges and universities are increasingly deploying solar arrays and other forms of renewable energy. Yet most institutions have a long way to go if they are to meet their goal of being carbon neutral in the coming decades.
READ MORE

For European Wind Industry,
Offshore Projects Are Booming

by christian schwägerl
As Europe’s wind energy production rises dramatically, offshore turbines are proliferating from the Irish Sea to the Baltic Sea. It’s all part of the European Union’s strong push away from fossil fuels and toward renewables.
READ MORE

In New Ozone Alert, A Warning
Of Harm to Plants and to People

by jim robbins
Scientists are still trying to unravel the damaging effects of ground-level ozone on life on earth. But as the world warms, their concerns about the impact of this highly toxic, pollution-caused gas are growing.
READ MORE

The Rising Environmental Toll
Of China’s Offshore Island Grab

by mike ives
To stake its claim in the strategic South China Sea, China is building airstrips, ports, and other facilities on disputed islands and reefs. Scientists say the activities are destroying key coral reef ecosystems and will heighten the risks of a fisheries collapse in the region.
READ MORE


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

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

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.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

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

e360 PHOTO ESSAY

“Alaska
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

“Ashaninka
An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
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

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

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

OF INTEREST



Yale