Nutrient overkill: we need to talk about intensive animal rearing

Europe faces a water crisis. A crisis of scarcity, excess, and pollution – which boils down to a crisis of policy. But the answers are there in black and white. As this European Commission approaches the end of its mandate, there are a number of legislative tools designed to combat these crises that it has yet to deliver on or failed to enforce. It must urgently do both. Ben Snelson reports.  

Farmed animals get a bad rep for the greenhouse gas emissions and harmful air pollution they cause. But this is just one angle one of many environmentally damaging outputs from industrialised animal rearing. 

Intensive animal farming and meat-heavy diets are pushing our earth and its natural support systems into dangerous territory. Most of these ‘safe and just planetary boundaries’, as measured by Rockström and others model, have already been breached.  

At the root of this polycrisis is our treatment of water. Left unaddressed, this threat will become existential. But with political will and commitment (and the implementation of existing rules), it can and will be resolved. 

© Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University. Based on Richardson et al. 2023, Steffen et al. 2015, and Rockström et al. 2009, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 

Too much of a good thing

In Europe today, the application of nutrients (especially nitrogen and phosphorus) on crops – mainly as synthetic fertilisers and livestock manure – far exceeds sustainable levels. This devastates aquatic ecosystems and renders freshwater sources undrinkable, threatening human health and social stability. Polluting flows of nitrogen and phosphorus currently exceed planetary boundaries by a factor of 3.3 and 2 respectively, and approximately half of the nitrogen applied to fields in the form of livestock manure and mineral fertilisers is lost to the surrounding environment. In Europe, animal farming accounts for around 81% of agricultural nitrogen in aquatic ecosystems.  

A trickle of disasters for our natural waters is becoming a flood. The application of both synthetic and organic fertilisers to fields across Europe is resulting in eutrophication that is turning larger water bodies into ‘dead zones’

This phenomenon is not isolated or small-scale; it surrounds us. Mar Menor in Spain, a former ecological treasure, has become a “green soup” which in 2021 saw tonnes of dead fish wash up on its shores. An EU ‘factfinding’ study attributes this disaster to the discharge of excessive nutrients into the water and indicates that 85% of Mar Menor nutrients originate from surrounding agriculture.  

The Polish-German Oder River catastrophe offers another recent example of mass fish die-off. Here too, the causes are attributed to rich flow of nutrients.  

The Baltic Sea, a major body of water encircled by extensive industrial agriculture, has become one of the most concerning examples of eutrophication in Europe, given its sheer scale.  

The costs to ecosystems cannot be understood in monetary terms. But for a point of reference, the overall financial costs of nutrient pollution to the environment in the EU are estimated at €70-320 billion per year

Eutrophication process – WWF Poland

Geopolitical pressures 

Another angle of this crisis is geopolitical. The fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed an overreliance on imports of fossil fuels and fertilisers. To bring down pollution and meet urgent climate targets, Europe’s consumption of these must be drastically reduced. 

There is also a clear need for the EU to reduce its dependence on unfriendly political regimes. Yet EU fertiliser imports from Russia still amount to over €2.5 billion a year. This not only fuels Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, but also undermines efforts to instigate and accelerate a transition to agroecology – an approach to farming that embraces the ecosystems that ultimately underpin and sustain food production.  

But wait, isn’t there a solution to this already? 

As we wrote last year, there is a solution to this growing challenge. The European Commission has itself stated that it has a “unique opportunity” to address this problem: the ‘Integrated Nutrient Management Action Plan’ (INMAP). A key feature of the EU’s Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies, the INMAP has been touted as the perfect tool to meet the EU goal of cutting nutrient losses by 50% by 2030, while preserving soil fertility. 

The Commission had indicated it would deliver a proposal on this initiative in the spring of 2023, yet it is still nowhere to be seen… 

Water scarcity and misuse 

Closely linked to the nutrient crisis is Europe’s swelling water crisis. Intense drought, raging wildfires and flash floods are wreaking destruction on farms, ecosystems and millions of livelihoods across Europe. These threats demand action in the form of joined-up, coherent responses at local, national and European levels.  

Instead, what we’re seeing is a lack of concerted action and a perverse tendency for governments to allow – effectively condone – practices that are compounding both scarcity of water and the continued pollution of what remains. This is beyond short-sighted. It is reckless, and in many cases, illegal

These issues have a common cause: industrial agriculture.  

Rather than asking “where do we source water to sustain current agricultural practices and levels of production?”, we should be asking “what are we using our water for, and how could we better preserve and protect it?”. 

Here’s one you made earlier 

In 2000, the EU adopted the Water Framework Directive (WFD), a tool designed to restore the quality of EU waters, achieve sustainable water management, and mitigate the effects of droughts and floods. The WFD aimed to bring Europe’s waters to good status by 2015.  

And yet today, in 2023, most water bodies remain in poor condition (including a growing number in protected areas!). 

As the EEB noted in a recent briefing paper, the solutions to our current water crisis can be found in the WFD. But what is lacking is both effective implementation at national level by EU governments, and adequate enforcement of this legislation by the European Commission, the ‘Guardian of the Treaties’.  

The billions of animals in the room  

Over 90% of the global water footprint is attributable to agriculture, of which nearly 30% goes towards raising animals, while a significant share of remaining water use can be linked with the intensive irrigated production of feed for industrially reared cows, pigs and poultry.  

Multiple overlapping crises – from climate and biodiversity to human rights and animal welfare – point to industrial livestock. In its current state it cannot be sustained, and the consequences can no longer be ignored.  

The Commission has acknowledged these crises and, as part of its Farm to Fork Strategy (F2F) launched in 2020, included the promise of a framework law for sustainable food systems. This ‘SFS Law’ was presented as a ‘legislative backbone’ of F2F, an initiative designed to promote people’s access to healthy and sustainable food, guarantee a fair return for farmers, protect farm workers’ rights throughout the food supply chain, and fundamentally ensure that our food system operates within the biophysical boundaries of our planet.  

F2F also promised a thorough revision of outdated EU legislation on animal welfare. Both were due in September 2023, but have been seemingly shelved in reaction to industry pushback, with the sole exception of a small update of welfare standards for animals during transport (and even this now seems in question).

So, what needs to happen?  

Europe must move towards producing and eating more sustainably, which means less and better meat, more seasonal and locally produced food, organic produce, fewer synthetic inputs, etc. 

These changes are needed rapidly and at scale across Europe, and this can only be achieved if EU policymakers fulfil their legislative commitments to ensuring better protections for our health and that of precious ecosystems.

The Commission must continue – and accelerate – the implementation of its Green Deal vision, delivering its promised INMAP, SFS Law and the revision of animal welfare legislation. EU countries must fully implement and adhere to existing EU laws, and where they fail to, the Commission must enforce it.