Challenges in agricultural pollution policy

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Source: European Commission, Environment DG

Concerns about the impact of agricultural pollution on the environment have led to national and international efforts to limit water pollution, such as the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD). New UK research highlights a number of key issues for policy makers in this area relating to monitoring and modelling pollution levels.

Much improvement has been made in water protection in Europe, in both individual Member States and at European level. However, there is still progress to make and this need is expressed by both the scientific community and other experts and, to an increasing extent, by the public and environmental organisations.

The WFD1 will increasingly coordinate EU water policy. It aims to prevent water resources deteriorating further, promote sustainable water use and enhance aquatic environments. The WFD includes economic analyses and public participation to develop plans for river basin management.

One key issue in river basin management is that while scientists' current understanding of pollution levels is good, it is difficult to link pollution data with ecological impacts. However, a number of new monitoring tools are becoming available, including biological early warning systems and chemical water quality monitoring systems.

Modelling and decision support tools have been used to inform policy about diffuse pollution from agriculture. Policy makers should be aware that modelling studies that look at preventing pollution during key ecological windows (for instance when salmon are spawning in rivers) might be more beneficial than models that only assess the annual prevention of pollution.

Mitigation programmes must consider multiple pollutants and the risk of 'pollution swapping', where intervention to address one pollutant has a negative effect on another. Efforts to mitigate diffuse agricultural pollution must be sustainable and also address the wider needs of society. Stakeholder engagement in the decisions about mitigation strategies is important, the study says.

The authors also point out that the WFD does not address climate change, which is a potential weakness. For example, recent UK research suggests that climate change will cause wetter winters with more storms, which means that more contaminants in sediment could be washed into aquatic ecosystems as a result.

Efforts to target mitigation methods appropriate for the type of landscape or agriculture practiced continue to come under scrutiny, particularly in the context of additional environmental pressures like climate change. Sediment must be given a higher profile in pollution policy because it plays a key role in transferring nutrients and contaminants with a negative impact on habitats.

The researchers call for a more holistic approach to understanding and managing the pressures and impacts of pollution from alternative sectors, and stakeholder engagement.

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