Nutrients in EU agriculture

Nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous are essential for crop production. Nutrients can be applied through commercially produced fertilisers, as well as organic substances such as animal manure.

When used excessively, however, nutrients can be a major source of air, soil and water pollution, and can also have negative impacts on both biodiversity and the climate.

As part of the Farm to Fork strategy – one of the central pillars of the European Green Deal – the European Commission aims to see a reduction in nutrient losses of at least 50% by 2030, while ensuring no deterioration in soil fertility. This is expected to lead to a reduction in fertiliser use of at least 20%.

The common agricultural policy (CAP) is the key tool in supporting the sustainable use of fertilisers in agriculture, ensuring that farmers can maintain productivity while also reducing the harmful effects of pollution.

Current CAP actions

The CAP promotes sustainable agricultural systems in the EU, enabling farmers to:

  • provide safe, healthy, and sustainably produced food for society;
  • earn a stable and fair income, taking into account the full range of public goods they provide;
  • protect natural resources, enhance biodiversity, and contribute to the fight against climate change.

Through a number of rules and measures, the CAP supports farmers in the sustainable use of nutrients.

Cross-compliance

Under cross-compliance rules, all beneficiaries of the CAP have their payments linked with a set of statutory management requirements (SMRs) and good agricultural and environmental conditions (GAECs). Cross-compliance rules relating to nutrients include:

  • the linking of payments with the nitrates directive (SMR 1);
  • GAECs designed to protect water and soil, which involve the responsible use of nutrients.

Rural development

The sustainable use of nutrients can be supported through rural development, the so-called 'second pillar' of the CAP. In their rural development programmes, EU countries can include a number of beneficial measures.

  • Measures to support knowledge transfer and information, advisory services, and cooperation can be used to develop and disseminate knowledge on safe and efficient nutrient application;
  • Measures to support organic farming encourage reductions in the use of inorganic fertilisers.

New CAP: 2023-27

Due to start in 2023, the new CAP will put agriculture closer in line with the targets of the Farm to Fork strategy with regard to reduced nutrient pollution.

CAP specific objectives

Sustainable nutrient management is relevant for a number of the new CAP’s specific objectives, particularly those relating to climate change, natural resources and biodiversity.

CAP strategic plans

In their CAP strategic plans, EU countries will have the flexibility to tailor strategies and interventions that can improve nutrient management at national level, in line with EU targets.

New green architecture

The new CAP will include strengthened rules and enhanced opportunities to support the efficient use of nutrients. For example, the enhanced conditionality of the new CAP will form a stronger baseline of mandatory requirements related to the proper use of nutrients. Additionally, a significant portion of the CAP’s budget will be devoted to eco-schemes, which can support voluntary practices by farmers – more ambitious than the legal baseline – that contribute to the sustainable use of nutrients.

The Commission published an indicative list of eco-schemes in January 2021. Within the framework of providing farm advisory services, EU countries will make a Farm Sustainability Tool for nutrients (FaST) available from 2024 at the latest. This is a digital tool that can be operated on smartphones, tablets and computers.

The FaST will combine data and manual input from farmers to provide customised recommendations on crop fertilisation through a nutrient management plan. In addition, support for rural development will continue to fund land management payments, investments, knowledge-building, innovation and co-operation relevant to nutrient management.

Knowledge, research, and innovation

The Commission supports research and innovation in agriculture and forestry, with areas of focus including sustainable primary production and water, nutrients and waste.

The farm advisory system shares knowledge of new developments and advises farmers on best practices for the application of nutrients.

Legal basis

Cross-compliance is governed by rules on the financing, management and monitoring of the common agricultural policy, as set out in EU Regulation 1306/2013, EU Implementing Regulation 809/2014, and EU Delegated Regulation 640/2014.

The rules for green direct payments are set out in EU Regulation 1307/2013, EU Delegated Regulation 639/2014, and EU Implementing Regulation 641/2014.

EU support for rural development comes from the European agricultural fund for rural development (EAFRD), as set out in EU Regulation 1305/2013.