EU legislation on nitrates aims at reducing water pollution by nitrates from agricultural sources and at preventing further pollution.
In agriculture, the trend towards greater intensification and higher productivity during much of the past fifty years was accompanied by a significant increase in the use of both inorganic nitrogen and phosphorous fertilisers. This led to excessive amounts of nitrates and phosphates in waters and to eutrophication of these waters.
With measures introduced in the agricultural and environmental policies, a progressive reduction in fertiliser consumption has been recorded and this trend has continued in the period 2000-2003.
The Common Agricultural Policy can help to reduce the pollution of waters by nitrates, through
- Rural Development measures (in particular, agri-environment measures, support for investments in storage of manure, and training)
- Cross-compliance (including the Nitrates Directive, establishment of buffer strips along water courses), and
- the operational programmes for fruit and vegetables.
In terms of environmental legislation, the EU's Nitrates Directive was introduced in 1991 with two main objectives:
- To reduce water pollution by nitrates from agricultural sources.
- To prevent further pollution.
The directive is managed by Member States and involves:
- Monitoring water quality in relation to agriculture.
- Designation of Nitrate Vulnerable Zones.
- Establishment of (voluntary) codes of good agricultural practice and of (obligatory) measures to be implemented in action programmes for nitrate vulnerable zones.
For Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, the directive sets 170 kilos as the maximum annual limit of nitrogen from livestock manure that can be applied per hectare.
Codes of good agricultural practice cover such activities as
- application periods,
- fertiliser use near watercourses and on slopes,
- manure storage methods,
- spreading methods and crop rotation and
- other land management measures.
Action programmes must include
- obligatory measures concerning periods of prohibition of the application of certain types of fertiliser,
- capacity of manure storage vessels,
- limitations to the application of fertilisers (on steep slopes; to water-saturated, flooded, frozen or snow-covered ground; near water courses), as well as
- other measures set out in codes of good agricultural practice.
Several Member States have been granted a derogation to apply an amount of nitrogen from livestock manure higher than 170 kg/ha/year, justified on the basis of objective criteria so as to not jeopardise the attainment of the objectives of the Directive.
The Nitrates Directive is included into the list of statutory management requirements subject to cross-compliance rules. In addition, the Council reached political agreement on 20 November 2008 on the so-called Health Check of the CAP. As part of this agreement, the good agricultural and environmental condition of cross-compliance will be complemented by a standard requiring the establishment of buffer strips along water courses. This should help reducing the run-off and leaching of nitrates to surface and ground waters.
Detailed information can be found on the ‘'Implementation of Nitrates Directive' web pages.