Main authors: Rozalija Cvejič, Marina Pintar, Gerard Velthof
FAIRWAYiS Editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: »Cvejič, R. et al. (2021) Scientific support for policies aiming at reducing diffuse nitrates and pesticides pollution of drinking water in Europe; synthesis report. FAIRWAY Project Deliverable 7.4 29 pp


In Europe we have a clear need and a goal to produce adequate quantities of safe and healthy foods using systainable practices that protect human health and the environment. Controlling agricultural diffuse pollution by nitrate and pesticides (ADP) is a complex task involving not only technical on-field measures, but ranges from improving genetic resources, establishing high value biological sites, reducing the use of pesticides and nitrates, processing to reduce their content in by-products, ensuring continued monitoring programmes, and supporting multi-actor platforms to accelerate implementation of measures. Limiting ADP is a prerequisite to significantly contribute to reaching drinking water quality targets, and is an investment to improving public health, by also protecting biodiversity, promoting local businesses, and increasing climate change resilience of the rural and urban Europe.

There is an increasing agreement that advancing approaches and tools to reducing ADP requires stronger collaboration between science, policy and practice. In the EU the strong policy support to limit ADP reflect in numerous directives, transposed in national laws, including the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC, WFD), Drinking Water Directive (98/83/EC; 2020/2184/EC, DWD), Ground Water Directive (2006/118/EC, GWD), Nitrates Directive (91/676/EC, ND), and the Directive on Sustainable Use of Pesticides (2009/128/EC, SUD). Within Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy lays down the instruments for on-farm advancement of practices to protect the drinking water quality by reducing ADP, and streamlines agricultural practices that help improve ecosystem functions of rural areas and for promoting the uptake of best agricultural practices to promote “sustainable agricultural water management” (DG AGRI, 2021) on voluntarily bases.

Despite the comprehensive legislative endeavours, monitoring, and control mechanism, vast array of decision support tools (DSTs) on various decision-making levels, and high community engagement, protection of drinking water from diffused nitrates and pesticides pollution remain challenging in several aspects (see also »Policy & governance and their »Key messages). Important obstacles relate to continued provision of resources (time, finances, and facilitation) to enable meaningful engagement of stakeholder in multi-actor platforms to help connect stakeholder for advancing strategies related to limiting ADP (Nesheim et al., 2020). There is a lack of consistent databases to link pollution and mitigation measures that are required to monitor water quality (Laurencelle, M. et al 2021: »Database containing harmonized data sets). Our knowledge in relation to understanding of pollution swapping risks in setting up mitigation strategies still needs advancing (Ros, M. et al. 2020. »Management practices that reduce nitrate transport and »Management practices that reduce pesticide transport). Furthermore unavailability or low use of DSTs for nitrogen and pesticides management on farms that include water quality is a significant obstacle to limiting ADP (Laursen et al.; 2019: »Evaluation of decision support tools).

A shared understanding on how water and agricultural governance cascades down from the EU to farm level and how this reflects in characteristics of governance and efficiency of policies is also low, and improved cross-referencing between policies is required to improve policy efficiency in the future (Boekhold et al., 2021: »Policy brief: From farm to drinking water - fit for the future?). Apart from that, low political will and scarce shared understanding of mechanism limit policy implementation which in turn increases policy implementation deficit in relation to limiting ADP (Železnikar et al., 2021: »Barriers and issues in providing integrated scientific support for EU policy; Rudolf et al., 2021: »Actors' feedback on practices for improvement of water quality in FAIRWAY case studies and interim project results; Glavan et al., 2019).

Further, there are constraints of general uniform payments and greening schemes in delivering environmental benefits (Boekhold et al., 2021: »Policy brief: From farm to drinking water - fit for the future?). The most effective on-field measures to reduce nitrate leaching to groundwater drinking water resources are balanced nitrogen fertilization (timing, method, rate, and source of application), reduced tillage, and cover and catch crops (Ros, M. et al. 2020 »Management practices that reduce nitrate transport and »Management practices that reduce pesticide transport). While on-farm measures to reduce pesticides pollution (e.g. vegetative buffers, tillage practices) are effective at reducing off-site pollution, they are costly to install and maintain. And, although, such on-field measures contribute to reduced pesticides pollution for overland flow they are not sufficient to mitigate pesticides pollution. A combination of various measures is required to significantly reduce ADP (Commelin et al., 2018: »Review of measures to decrease pesticide pollution of drinking water sources), and should be based on local-adaptation and result-based action (Boekhold et al., 2021: »Policy brief: From farm to drinking water - fit for the future?). This is not a simple task and probably goes beyond the reach of many multi-actor platforms. Meaning local uptake of the “right combination” of measures will still heavily reply on cooperation of farmers with the agricultural extension service, and close cooperation of relevant local stakeholders in scientific multi-actor research-project projects (such as FAIRWAY, WATER PROTECT, SPRINT, etc.), but also through national research programmes and supported participation mechanism to foster co-innovation (such as European Innovation Partnerships).

Multi-actor platforms to support science policy practice interface are European Innovation Partnerships (EIPs). EIP-AGRI Focus Group (FG) provide in depth analysis of enabling factors to many of the measures for reducing ADP. However, the work of FG needs to be further advanced by looking also at measured measures efficiency, and the appropriate combination of measures in a given hydrological area that should be couple with agri-environmental indicators and consistent water quality monitoring programmes (Cvejić and Pintar, 2021).

In this section of FAIRWAYiS we aim to synthesise main findings from FAIRWAY concerning (a) multi-actor platforms and their future role in reducing ADP, (b) policy implementation responsibility and how can science and policy better support stakeholder networks and individuals; (c) promising governance strategies and how can coherence and consistency of EU legislation and policy be improved to effectively protect drinking water resources at the local scale; (d) tracking the change and which are the good baselines for monitoring and indicators for future actions; promising measures and practices that we need to push forward to advance ADP, and (e) advancement and promotion of DSTs to help us on ground.

This synthesis is especially relevant to those scientist, policy makers and practitioner that are looking into possible combination of strategies to reduce defuse pollution with nitrate and pesticides in agricultural drinking water catchments.


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