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.
The German fertilizer regulation of 1996 was meant to keep the problem in check, but its environmental goals have largely failed.
The German fertilizer regulation of 1996 was meant to keep the problem in check. But its environmental goals have not been met and have “largely failed,” according to a joint position statement made by a scientific advisory board to the German federal government a year ago.
The rules were too lax, they were not enforced strongly enough, and the sanctions were too soft, the experts concluded. There are around 160 monitoring stations in the most affected areas. Half of them show excessive pollution. The government does not deny that, but has not done anything to address the problem, which is whyBrussels is now going after Berlin.
The European Commission is clear on the causes of water pollution. In a report, it said: “large amounts of livestock that are concentrated in one region, because there is an imbalance between the fertilizer production and the need for the crops grown.”
Local water companies are well aware of the issues, but because the legal process is so weak, they have sought to improve the situation by collaborating with those who pollute the groundwater. As a rule, it is cheaper to compensate farmers to fertilize and harvest less than it is to remove nitrates from the water.
The problem of liquid manure will only get worse. For a while nitrates that are not absorbed by plants are broken down in the soil and do not reach groundwater. But the soil in many areas is getting exhausted, and soon the nitrates will be able to seep unhindered into the ground water.
Furthermore, animals are being fed more and more imported food, especially cheap soy from Brazil. There is almost 30 times more nitrogen in each kilogram of soy than in domestically produced corn, accoring to Friedhelm Taube, an agronomist at the University of Kiel. As a result, Germany is importing large quantities of nitrogen with its food. Most of it is then eliminated by animals as manure that threatens the groundwater.
The situation is worsened by the state supported biogas plants that opened about 10 years ago, which are mostly located in livestock breeding regions. These plants require plant energy, and subtropical plants are now grown on 800,000 hectares, or almost 7 percent of arable land, to generate raw material supplies for the biogas plants. Fermentation residue of this plant matter is similar to the waste from livestock, containing a lot of nitrogen and aggravating the manure problem.
The German government already has let opportunities to better protect the groundwater pass by.
It could have ensured, with the implementation of E.U. agricultural reforms, that certain subsidies be tied to forgoing the use of fertilizer. It could have accepted the wish of the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament representing Germany’s federal states, to subject manure storage tanks to stricter conditions. And it could have also reached an agreement long ago on new regulations for fertilization itself.
Brussels now complains that everything that German Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt is prepared to do is “not ambitious enough.” In their coalition agreement, the conservative Christian Democrats, their Bavarian Christian Social Union allies and the center-left Social Democrats promised a different approach. They wanted to see fertilizer used in such a way so as to “minimize the risks for people, animals and nature.”
The moment of truth is approaching.
This story first appeared in Die Zeit. It was translated by Mary Beth Warner. To contact the author: Fritz.Vorholz@zeit.de