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13.06.2019

Ministers present joint proposal for effectively protecting groundwater against nitrate input

Protecting the groundwater is a top priority for the German government. Therefore it is important to prevent too much nitrate entering the soil via fertilisers.

More stringent Fertiliser Application Ordinance - in cooperation with Brussels

Protecting the groundwater is a top priority for the German government. Therefore it is important to prevent too much nitrate entering the soil via fertilisers. Following comprehensive consultations with the Länder, associations and members of the Bundestag, the federal government has agreed on proposals to further limit fertilisation. The Länder were included as the Fertiliser Application Ordinance also has to be approved by the Bundesrat. The goal is to improve the protection of our waters and thus meet the requirements of the ECJ decision against the Federal Republic of Germany concerning the EU nitrates directive (91/676/EEC).

"Fertilisers are for the plants and not for the groundwater. We want to protect our groundwater. I am glad that we have managed to propose to the EU Commission a fair balance between the rigorous limit values of the nitrates directive and the requirements for sustainable crop production. Implementing these provisions would require considerable efforts by our farmers. However, we plan to support them with various measures, as the farmers are also deeply interested in keeping our groundwater clean,” commented Federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner.

Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said: "We are proposing to the EU Commission a package of legal provisions which take water body protection into greater account. This additional tightening of the rules concerning fertilisation is necessary as we want to cut nitrate values in water bodies to an acceptable level, put an end to the infringement procedure against Germany and avoid penalties. Lower nitrate values will help us to prevent increasing prices for drinking water and will protect our biological diversity. This is for the benefit of all."

While nitrate is an important plant nutrient, excessive nitrate levels in groundwater make drinking water treatment more expensive and are detrimental to the environment. In addition, conventional countermeasures of the water management sector are increasingly reaching their limits, are expensive and put a financial burden on both private households and businesses.

Therefore, agriculture has already undertaken comprehensive efforts to improve the situation in recent years. As early as 2017, the federal Government amended the Fertiliser Application Ordinance with the aim of improving the protection of groundwater bodies. However, from the point of view of the European Commission those amendments did not go far enough to meet the requirements of the EU nitrates directive. In the meantime, the European Court of Justice condemned Germany for an inadequate transposition of the nitrates directive in 2018.

The proposals:

For areas with heavy nitrate loads the federal government proposes to the Commission measures which are radical for the farmers but as a whole necessary to protect the groundwater. These measures will include:

  • Reduction of fertilisation in 'red areas', this means areas with extremely high nitrate levels, by 20 per cent on average of the farm’s agricultural land within these areas and an upper limit of 170 kilogram of total nitrogen for land parcels or management units per hectare and year for organic and organic-mineral fertiliser. In order to take account of the conditions specific to each farm and crop, in future farmers will still have the flexibility to decide which crops to fertilise according to the maximum need. However, to compensate for this, other areas with high nitrate loads must be fertilised less in order to meet the upper limits.
  • A closed period which may be extended by up to four weeks, during which fertilisation in areas with high nitrate loads is prohibited;
  • Greater distances to surface waters when fertilising, 10 metres in case of an incline of more than 15 per cent and 2 metres in case of an incline between 5 and 10 per cent in order to prevent a run-off of nitrogen into adjacent water bodies (in contrast to generally 5 metres in sloping terrain up to now).

There are exemptions for extensively operated and organic farms which fertilise in such a sustainable and resource friendly way that they do not contribute to water pollution. Thus, farms which fertilise their agricultural land with less than 160 kg of total nitrogen per hectare and year, of which only a maximum of 80 kg may come from mineral fertiliser, may be exempted from the obligation to reduce the application of fertilisers and to meet maximum upper limits per parcel or management unit. This exemption from the obligation to reduce the application of fertilisers also applies to permanent pasture, as it has a lower risk of run-offs. Furthermore, the fertilisation of rapeseed in autumn will be allowed, provided soil samples show that the soil reserve does not suffice to meet fertiliser needs.

All in all, these proposals will make fertilisation in Germany more sustainable and improve the protection of water bodies, without constraining farmers beyond what is really necessary.

The proposals will now be submitted to the European Commission.

They are the precondition for avoiding a second suit being filed by the EU Commission against the Federal Republic of Germany

The next steps

Federal Ministers Klöckner and Schulze will meet with the EU Commission as soon as possible to personally explain the proposal more in detail. Once the Commission approves of the proposed measures the official legislative procedure to amend the Fertiliser Application Ordinance will be initiated.

13.06.2019 | Pressreport No. 097/19 | Europe and the Environment
Joint press release with the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture