Nitrates and the CAP

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.

The common agricultural policy (CAP) 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);
  • the operational programmes for fruit and vegetables.

Legal basis

The EU's Nitrates Directive was introduced in 1991 with two main objectives:

  • reduce water pollution by nitrates from agricultural sources;
  • prevent further pollution.

The directive is managed by EU countries 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;
  • 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 EU countries 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.