Agricultural policy needs to secure stronger environmental improvements for water in Europe

News Published 25 Feb 2021 Last modified 09 Feb 2023
2 min read
Photo: © Perry Wunderlich, REDISCOVER Nature /EEA
Reducing pressures from agriculture is key to improving the status of Europe’s rivers, lakes, transitional, coastal waters and seas as well as groundwater bodies. A European Environment Agency (EEA) assessment, published today, shows that wider uptake of sustainable agricultural management practices is needed for improving the state of water, as well as biodiversity.

Agricultural management practices should be based on agroecological principles, organic farming and nature-based solutions, the EEA report ‘Water and agriculture; towards sustainable solutions,’ says. To achieve this, more ambitious measures to promote sustainable agriculture are needed in the upcoming EU common agricultural policy 2021-2027.

Recent EEA studies have shown that many of Europe’s surface and groundwaters are not in good status and the state of Europe’s regional seas is alarming. Agricultural activities are an important source of pressures on Europe’s waters, due to nutrient and chemical pollution, water abstraction and physical changes in habitats, including through water storage and land drainage. Responding to these challenges is urgent, since climate change impacts in parts of Europe are exacerbating pressures on water and pose a risk to agricultural production.

The EEA assessment shows that a wide variety of management measures exist to tackle agricultural pressures on the water environment. While some progress has been made to reduce agricultural pressures in the 20th century, they remain at unsustainable levels with few signs of improvement over the past 10 years. 

The EEA report points to three areas of improvement:

  • Wider uptake of sustainable management practices based on agroecological principles, organic farming and nature- based solutions. Such practices have multiple sustainability benefits, reducing pressures on water, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions, enhance the long-term resilience of agriculture to climate pressures and benefit biodiversity.
  • Implementation and integration of EU policies. This requires tackling incentives leading to pressures on water and prioritising funding for sustainable agriculture in the upcoming strategic plans of the EU common agricultural policy 2021-2027.
  • More holistic approaches to facilitate the transition to sustainable agriculture. Achieving the reductions needed to reach water and other environmental targets requires a combined approach, changing both agricultural practices and consumer demands, which is supported by a transition in food and energy systems.  

The European Commission has put forward several initiatives under the European Green Deal to strengthen sustainability, including the biodiversity 2030, farm-to-fork and climate adaptation strategies, and the upcoming restoration directive, and zero pollution and balanced nutrient management action plans. If fully implemented and operationalised, the EEA assessment states, the ambitious new targets will support a more resilient and sustainable future.


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