What is eutrophication?
Eutrophication is the enrichment of nutrients in an ecosystem. Excessive amounts of nutrients encourage the growth of algae and other aquatic plants, which in turn leads to a multitude of negative effects such as extensive growth of algae (algae blooms) and oxygen depletion in the sea.
Excessive nutrient runoff from human activities, like agriculture, is contributing to the severe disruption of the Baltic Sea’s marine ecosystem, to the detriment of marine life and human health. We are working to address the problem by promoting policy reform and more sustainable farming and land management practices.
Eutrophication in the Baltic Sea
According to the second HELCOM assessment on the ‘State of the Baltic Sea,’ although nutrient inputs to the Baltic Sea have decreased, over 97% of the Baltic Sea area is still affected by eutrophication. It is unlikely that the nutrient inputs to the Baltic Sea will be reduced to reach the maximum allowable level in all subbasins by the deadline of 2021.
The good news is that many of the worst point sources of pollution have been addressed and significant gains have been made, including by improving wastewater treatment facilities and addressing industry runoff. The share of the total nutrient load contributed by these sectors has decreased substantially.
However, agricultural runoff from around the Baltic Sea has been more challenging to address due to the diffuse nature of the nutrient loading. The main pathways for nutrients are the five main rivers – the Neva, Nemunas, Daugava, Vistula and Oder. The expected development of agriculture around the region will worsen conditions if reductions in nutrient inputs to the Baltic Sea are not implemented. Another problem is the fact that much of the phosphorus already released to the Baltic Sea is now stored as an environmental liability in the sediments of the deeper parts of the basin. Anoxic (oxygen-free)conditions enhance the release of phosphorus from the sediment – so-called “internal loading” – and that, in turn, encourages algal blooms which, as they die, sink to the bottom and consume oxygen during the decomposition process.
The solution lies in agricultural policy and practice
A major solution to the problem of eutrophication lies in addressing land-based measures through policy reform, and the promotion of more sustainable farming and land management practices.
Working together with farmers
Around 97% of the Baltic Sea is still affected by eutrophication, and agricultural measures remain a critical part of the solution. Agricultural activities are a major source of nutrient loading to the Baltic Sea, accounting for nearly half of all nitrogen and phosphorus input. Addressing nutrient runoff in such a large catchment area over several countries is a challenge. Agricultural loads mostly originate from non-point sources and are discharged over a wide area of land. Furthermore, farming in the Baltic Sea varies from country to country in climate, soil, water, and socio-economic circumstances.
Amid such challenges, working together with farmers to implement methods that keep nutrients and water on land, utilize fertilizers more efficiently and reduce runoff is more important than ever. A commitment to caring for the environment and making active choices to use greener agricultural methods can help preserve and restore critical habitats, protect watersheds, and improve soil health and water quality in addition to providing the region with food and jobs.
Redirecting harmful subsidies
Many farmers are committed to caring for the environment and making active choices to use greener agricultural methods. But agricultural policy reform is necessary to stop harmful practices on a large scale. Financial support for the agricultural sector accounts for almost half of the EU budget. Agricultural policies and subsidies to farmers within the EU have long been obstacles to reaching the goal of more environmentally friendly agriculture since they promote practices that are not sustainable.
WWF works successfully with farmers and has built alliances with the agriculture sector and governments in the region, with the aim of development of regional policies such as the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan, an agricultural policy at national, regional and European levels and EU directives. WWF also works to promote behaviour change in other relevant actors across the food production chain, including daily consumption patterns and product choices. The most significant drivers of regional agricultural practices are the global market and the subsidies provided by the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which promotes the adoption of intensified and unsustainable agriculture practices.
With the current CAP, significant financial support to farmers will continue without requiring much in return in terms of public goods. If this support is used to reach agreed environmental, social and economic objectives, instead of locking it up in a system of environmentally harmful subsidies, we could both save the Baltic Sea and make better use of taxpayers’ money. We believe that subsidies should only go to farmers who can prove they are taking concrete measures to reduce nutrient runoff and farm sustainably. As an alternative to existing policies WWF proposes that, by following a few simple principles, sustainable European agriculture can be within reach.