Drinking water is the most strictly regulated foodstuff in Germany. What comes out of the tap is always “pure,” or so the law states.
But is it?
Millions of cubic meters of liquid manure are used on the country’s fields. It seeps into the earth and trickles into the groundwater, which accounts for two thirds of Germany’s drinking water. In the states of Lower Saxony, Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia, the water utilities have already had to close some wells.
The people living there are partially being supplied with water through “emergency measures,” said Martin Weyand from the German water utilities association. The unpleasant flood coming from intensive livestock farming not only threatens the health of those using the water, but it is also a political issue. The European Commission is threatening to sue Germany in the European Court of Justice over situation, which it says violates E.U. law.
The problem is with nitrates, a nitrogen compound that is hidden in the feces and urine of pigs, cattle and chickens, in addition to a lot of water and all sorts of foul smelling materials.
The unappetizing mixture, which is called liquid manure in official German, is used as a fertilizer for crops and should be spread on the fields in moderation. But in areas of intense meat production, the manure is simply dumped on the fields. What isn’t absorbed by nature ends up in the ground, and then in German drinking water.
The volume of manure is now at more than 160 million cubic meters per year.
The German authorities have tacitly tolerated the contamination of wells until now. But the European Commission does not want to accept that anymore and has initiated proceedings against the German government.
The charge from Brussels is that Germany is violating the nitrate directives of the European Union, which sets limits on the level of pollution. The German government only has a few days to take action before it risks a hefty penalty.
Germany now faces a fight with Brussels over its lax handling of the nitrate problem. It also highlights the dangers of industrial livestock farming.
In economic terms, the agricultural industry hardly matters at all any more to the German economy. Farming contribute only 0.8 percent of gross value added to the Germany economy. Nevertheless, farmers are allowed to shower untreated waste water from their animal stalls onto their fields a couple of times each year.
There are a few centers of intensive livestock farming in Germany in the western part of Lower Saxony, in northern North Rhine-Westphalia and in southeastern Bavaria. These are the same regions that have been flooded with now liquid manure, and which face the threat of water emergencies.
The Europeans have long set limits on nitrates — no more than 50 milligrams per liter in drinking water. That same amount has been set for more than 20 years for groundwater. Fifty milligrams of a compound of oxygen and nitrogen is equivalent to 11 milligrams of pure nitrogen.
This changed a century ago with the invention of artificial fertilizer. It helped crop yields increase dramatically, but it also separated the agricultural farming business from raising livestock. The manure remained with the animals and the industry delivered fertilizer for asparagus and rye fields. All of that adds to the manure problem to regions specializing in animal husbandry today.