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News Water pollution exceeds drinking-standard limits in many OECD farming areas

Pollution of rivers, lakes, and aquifers exceeds recommended limits for drinking water in farming areas in many OECD countries, according to a new OECD report. Environmental Performance of Agriculture in OECD Countries since 1990 shows that excess levels of nitrates, phosphorus or pesticides were found in more than one out of 10 monitoring sites in 13 OECD countries. Treating pesticide- and nutrient-contaminated water to bring it up to drinking standards is costly. In the United Kingdom, for example, the cost imposed by water pollution from agriculture is estimated at around EUR 345 million annually. Farm chemical contamination of coastal waters is also a major problem in most regions as nutrients cause rapid growth of algae and damage marine life.

Pesticide use has declined overall in OECD countries since 1990. But while many pesticides are now less environmentally harmful, the persistence in the environment of certain older pesticides – several of which are now banned in some countries - remains a concern.

The report shows that in a third of OECD countries more than 30% of water taken from underground aquifers is used by farmers. In regions of Australia, Greece, Italy, Mexico and the US, groundwater is being depleted at rates higher than it is being recharged. Government support for irrigation is widespread but can act as a disincentive to efficient water use.

The report also shows that:

  • Widespread fuel subsidies for famers in OECD countries are a disincentive to energy efficiency. Government revenue lost from farm fuel tax cuts, for example, amounts to about €950 million a year in France and US$ 2.3 billion in the US.
  • A growing number of farms are adopting environmental farming practices. The area of land farmed organically has risen sharply since the early 1990s. It still accounts for less than 2% of total farmland in OECD countries, but it is above 6% in some European countries.
  • Changes in farm management practices have brought some improvements in environmental performance, including lower rates of soil erosion and reduced air pollution. At the same time, the volume of OECD farm production has risen since 1990, with reductions in land use and employment levels and more efficient use of farm inputs (fertilisers, pesticides, energy, water), leading to an increase in agricultural productivity.

The report provides comparative data for OECD countries up to 2004 across a range of indicators, including agricultural production and land, nutrients, pesticides, energy, soil, water, air, biodiversity and farm management. While it recognises the increasing efforts by governments to enhance the environmental performance of agriculture, it points out  that  much farm support still remains linked to production. This encourages a higher level of output but also greater use of inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers.

The solution, according to the OECD, is to continue to shift towards farm support policies not linked to production and to pursue environmental objectives in agriculture by using a mix of targeted measures.  These include providing direct payments for environmental benefits (e.g. wildlife conservation), enforcing regulations and taxes to prevent pollution, improving information for farmers, and exploring market solutions, for example, using tradeable permits and quotas to address pollution from nutrients and greenhouse gases.

Contact information n/a
News type Inbrief
File link
Source of information OECD - The Environment Directorate
Geographical coverage International
News date 19/06/2008
Working language(s) ENGLISH