The big stink: Europe’s lockdown uncovers a surprising source of air pollution

The drop in traffic fumes in our cities’ air is making us more sensitive to a source of air pollution too often ignored: emissions from agriculture. But this countryside smell is not as rustic as some may think.

As governments all over Europe take measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and road traffic slows down, people living in cities are experiencing fresher air. Yet the absence of diesel fumes is also exposing many urban dwellers to emissions they are not used to smelling: the one coming from the fields.

It happened last weekend in Brussels, where many residents reported a strong smell of manure. “You’d think you were on a farm,” a citizen told the Belgian media outlet RTL Info. And while this made some feel nostalgic about a more romantic life in the countryside, other residents complained of its side effects: “When I opened my window, my eyes were stinging,” said one resident of Molenbeek, a municipality in the North-West of Brussels. “I also had a terrible headache.”

Fields of pollution

Manure management and storage is a significant source of ammonia, a highly polluting gas which threatens our ecosystems and causes irritation when inhaled. When the wind carries it over cities, ammonia reacts with emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from diesel vehicles and sulphur (SO2) from power plants, to produce minuscule solid particles – less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter – known as PM2.5.

This is one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution: PM2.5 can penetrate deep into the human respiratory tract and provoke lung and cardiovascular diseases, heart attacks and cancer, influence the central nervous system, and affect reproductive organs.

According to Clean Air Farming, an international project supported by the European Environmental Bureau to reduce emissions from agriculture and food waste, these tiny particles were responsible for 391,000 premature deaths in the EU in 2015. This is why ammonia emissions alone account for about 50% of the health impacts of polluted air in urban areas.

Air pollution data collected by the Belgian Interregional Environment Agency show a rise in PM2.5 particles registered in the whole country during the same days when residents reported the manure smell. This does not come as a surprise: early spring is the season for muck-spreading, when farmers use the cow-dung they have saved through winter to fertilise their fields – and Belgium is not an isolated case.

Last month, the same problem was reported in Milan, where a rise in fine particulate matter was linked to ammonia emissions from intensive livestock farming and fertilising in the Po Valley, as well as in Paris, where residents reported a strong ‘countryside smell’ since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown caused other air pollutants and odours to drop.

Clearing the air

Although emissions from farming are responsible for a surprising amount of urban air contamination, they remain largely untackled and there is no EU legislation to date aiming to reduce their impact on air quality. However, solutions for clean air farming exist, are cost-effective, and have already delivered results where implemented correctly.

Margherita Tolotto, Policy Officer or Air and Noise at the European Environmental Bureau, told META:

“Air pollution harms us all, it affects our health, threatens ecosystems and it even impacts our crops. Cutting emissions at the source will benefit everyone. Every sector must do its part and work together for cleaner air.”

The Clean Air Farming project reports that several measures can be implemented at the farm level to immediately reduce ammonia emissions. This includes improving the way manure is stored, to reduce its exposed surface, and using low-emission techniques to spread it on the fields; acidifying the slurry to lower its pH; feeding farm animals with no more proteins than they need; applying fertilisers in a way that minimises the formation and dispersion of ammonia, and avoiding over-fertilisation.

While local authorities can work with farmers to put these solutions into practice, argues Tolotto, national governments can play their role by delivering at least what is required by existing EU legislation, and developing more ambitious policies to keep emissions from agriculture under control.

EU member states are required to cut their ammonia emissions by 19% by 2030 to comply with the EU National Emission Ceilings(NEC) Directive, but too many countries are doing too little, too slow.

The new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Farm to Fork strategy should also play a key role in reducing the impact of agriculture on air quality.

“Ultimately, this is an unmissable opportunity to build a farming system that works in harmony with people and nature, and not against them,” said Tolotto.

About Clean Air Farming
The Project Clean Air Farming (LIFE17 GIE/DE/610 Air & Agriculture) is co-financed by the LIFE-Programme of the European Commission.