Atlas shows impact of fertilisers on the environment
An atlas showing the extent of nutrient pollution in Europe has been published by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre. The atlas is the work of FATE (Fate of Pollutants in Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecosystems), a JRC initiative investigating the impact of nutrients on the environment. Nutrients are a source of sustenance for both plants and animals. However, when too many nutrients get into the environment, primarily through fertilisers and other agrochemicals, they can have adverse effects, particularly on soil quality. They can also result in a decrease in water quality because of their ability to promote excessive plant and algae growth. Agriculture, wastewater treatment plants and industry are thought to be the sectors most responsible for this nutrient pollution, but until now, little was known about their exact role, or the extent of the pollution's impact across the European Union. For the first time, the atlas provides pan-European data on soils, topography climate and land use; agricultural practices (nitrogen and manure fertiliser, nitrogen surplus); and information for estimating nutrient discharges from point sources and scattered dwellings. This wealth of information gives a clear view of the pressure that nutrients and their sources are having on ecosystems. For instance, the atlas shows that the range of surplus nutrients in agro-intensive areas varies widely between European countries, with the Netherlands using more than 200 kg/ha and Italy not exceeding 40kg/ha. There is also a wide variety of usage within countries: for instance, France has an overall nitrogen excess of 50 kg/ha, whereas Brittany alone has levels exceeding 120 kg/ha. Thanks to information in the atlas, the scientists were able to show the link between excess nutrient loss and over-fertilisation, making prevention both relatively straightforward and low-cost. They were also able to identify a close link between increased nutrient pressures on the environment and high-density livestock production. Finally, based on several climate change scenarios, the scientists were able to show that intensive farming production would lead to increased use of fertilisers, while demand for water would also increase. The information collected by the FATE initiative is expected to ensure the improved implementation of existing legislation, while also providing firm scientific evidence for the drafting of future legislation.