Content of part 5

V. Right to intoxication

  • V.1. European Union-approved pesticide overdose [0 mn 17 s on the video]
  • V.2. Nitrogen fertilizers: legal doping [7 mn 12s]
  • V.3. Organic agriculture: calculated marginalization [11 mn 16s]
  • V.4. « Wasted » water [15 mn 54 s]
  • V.5. Underfunded ecological restoration [21 mn 24 s]

Introduction and part 1 Part 2Part 3Part 4

V. Right to intoxication

V.1. European Union-approved pesticide overdose

IN FRANCE, FARMERS WHO USE PESTICIDES do not pay any tax or charge for the water pollution they generate. But the distributors of pesticides and treated seeds do pay pollution charges. Elsewhere, in Denmark or Italy for instance where pesticides are taxed, these taxes have not changed conventional farming in any meaningful way. Even in Italy, a country more advanced than France in organic agriculture with 17 percent of its total utilized agricultural area labeled organic, most fields are sprayed with pesticides. Sales of pesticides in Italy went down a bit during the 2010s. But about 50,000 tons of pesticides were sold in this country in 2021, while Italy’s tax on pesticides is very low at 2 percent of the product value. Within the European Union (EU) as a whole, sales of pesticides decreased marginally from 2011 to 2021 with a little more or less than 350,000 tons of pesticides sold every single year (Agence de l’eau Loire-Bretagne, 2020 [a]; EEA, 2023 [a]; Eurostat, 2023 [a]; Eurostat, 2020 [b]; PAN Europe, 2024).

In France, pollution charges for pesticides imposed on usually wealthy distributors, such as the Bayer industry, is not a real deterrent. European law validates this tolerance for the pesticide industry regardless of the fact that this industry is one of the most toxic for the environment, especially water. French pollution charges for distributors of pesticides range from 0.90 to 9 euros per kilogram of pesticide sold, depending on toxicity levels. In Europe, the 2019’s turnover of the pesticide market was about 12 billion euros (Agence de l’eau Loire-Bretagne, 2020 [a]; Sénat, 2020 [a]; Investigate Europe, 2022).

In the Hauts-de-France region which encompasses almost the entire Artois-Picardie river basin district, conventional farmers apply pesticides on more than 95 percent of the cultivated farmland. In Artois-Picardie alone, pesticides are applied on more than 1 million hectares. In this district, the sale of pesticides classified as toxic, very toxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction increased from 419 tons in 2013 to 1,968 tons in 2018, that is more than 100 kilograms per conventional farm. That same year, 2,743 additionnal tons of pesticides dangerous for the environment were sold in the Artois-Picardie district. In France, the use of pesticides is enormous ; sales of pesticides increased by 25 percent between 2008 and 2018 and now exceed 85,000 tons a year. Across Artois-Picardie, pesticides like isoproturon and cypermethrin degrade many surface and underground water bodies. The impact on water bodies of a mixture of different pesticides, among some 300 currently in use in this district, is unknown (AEAP, 2019 [a], p.65; Agreste Hauts-de-France, 2019; Comité de bassin Artois-Picardie, 2020 [a], p.31, 43, 76; Fondation Nicolas Hulot, 2021, p.7, 14; Foucart, 2020; Observatoire Inosys 2019, p.3-4).

Data on the exceedance of pesticide pollution thresholds in surface waters are still scarce. Among these data, between 2016 and 2021, more than 50 percent of reported monitoring sites exceeded the pesticide pollution threshold in Czechia, in Hungary, in Luxembourg and the Netherlands; between 25 and 50 percent exceeded this threshold in Belgium, in France, in Germany, in Italy in Latvia and Sweden (EEA, 2024).

Aside from a serious chemical pollution of water, pesticide exposure can kill a good part of the populations of invertebrates and insects living in aquatic ecosystems. When that happens, it can severely disrupt both the food chain and ecosystems these populations belong to (Beketov et al., 2013; Inserm, 2013).

The Ecophyto II+ French plan of 2019 adopted by the Macron government aims at reducing the use of agricultural pesticides. That plan is based on weak incentives and, most of all, on petty restrictions on their use. It does not seek to do away with most pesticides, but just to eliminate some of greatest concern, which can be replaced by others a little less toxic. In short, that plan does not legally require farmers to get rid of most pesticides, but barely encourages them to reduce their use (Ministère de l’enseignement supérieur, de la recherche et de l’innovation, 2019).

The same story is true on the scale of the European Union despite appearances that seem more favorable to water bodies. In 2022, the European commission said that it wanted to cut the use of pesticides in all EU member States by 35 to 50 percent. In order to do that, the commission wanted to rely on the so-called legally binding Regulation on the Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products. In fact, it was merely another greenwashing operation. This regulation has just been rescinded, but it is worth looking at because it will probably resurface later with some changes. The European commission does not provide itself with the means to enforce a significant reduction in the use of pesticides. According to articles 6 and 11 of the regulation, if a member State does not comply with the goal of pesticide use reduction, it merely has to provide “justifications”. Non-complying member States would most likely not be subject to even inconsequential fines. Moreover, article 19 of the regulation allows the use of synthetic pesticides more than three meters from surface waters. In February 2024, to the relief of proponents of conventional agriculture, this spuriously ambitious regulation was thrown out the window. It was repealed due to protests of conventional farmers and influential farmers’ unions and because most members of the EU parliament also rejected it (Euronews, 2024 [a]; European commission 2022 [a], art. 6, 11, 19).

Pesticides can contaminate us as much as they affect water bodies. As human beings, we have our own “water bodies” vulnerable to this poison: 55 to 60 percent of our body is made of water; that percentage goes up to 73 percent for both the brain and heart and 75 percent for a newborn baby. Our brain needs water to manufacture hormones and neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers carrying chemical signals from one neuron to the next. Wether we ingest pesticides through our food or our drinking water, whether we absorb them through our skin or we breathe them in, repeated exposure of human beings to pesticides has been linked to an impaired development of the fetus, to male infertility and to an increased risk of developing certain types of cancers (Beketov et al., 2013; Inserm, 2013; Koutros et al., 2016; Sharma et al., 2015; USGS, 2020).

V.2. Nitrogen fertilizers: legal doping

In its 2021 “zero pollution” action plan, the European commission redoubled its efforts to paint everything in green by 2050. Beyond an ubiquitous greenwashing, nitrogen fertilizers take a backseat in the plan. They are addressed in a few lines. Here are two excerpts: “The Commission will continue working with Member States to further develop and improve the national advisory services for farmers to build capacity for less polluting practices, notably to reduce ammonia and nitrates emissions. […] The Commission is also assessing whether further legislation is needed to cap ammonia emissions.” If indeed a new legislation were to be passed, there is no question that it would keep on tolerating a high level of pollution. In 2022, an official of the European commission made it clear when he talked about a Dutch request to ease rules on nitrates. According to this official, any further derogation from current law would require an application in a “restricted manner and in compliance with the provisions of the law that foresees such derogation”. The law in question is lenient toward nitrate polluters (European commission, 2021 [a]; Foote, 2022).

In the EU, farmers who comply with the nitrate directive of 1991 don’t have to worry about their excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers. (Nitrates belong to the nitrogen fertilizers category). European legislators have been generous toward farmers hooked on nitrates. Under the 1991 directive, European farmers have the right to apply up to 170 kilograms of nitrogen from organic manure per hectare and per year in “designated vulnerable zones”. It is a very large amount causing widespread nitrogen pollution in the European conventional farmland (EP and CEU, 1991, introduction, articles 1, 5, annex III).

What are the consequences on the ground or rather underground? Again, let’s take the telling example of the Artois-Picardie river basin district. From 2012 to 2017, in eight of its seventeen underground water bodies (all under chalky soils), nitrates alone were sufficient to cause poor water quality (Comité de bassin Artois-Picardie, 2020 [a], p.40-42).

On average in France, each hectare of utilized agricultural area receives 79 kg/year of organic nitrogen, 95 percent of which comes from animal farming. On top of that, each hectare of the French utilized agricultural area receives 74 kg/year of mineral nitrogen. As a consequence, in France in 2018-19, nearly 20 percent of monitoring sites on French continental surface waters displayed an average nitrate concentration above 25 mg/l. An average of at least 10 mg/l was measured in nearly 60 percent of these sites. We know that from 7 mg/l, nitrates can reduce biodiversity. In an aquatic environment overloaded with nitrates, that is above 18 mg/l, certain plants, and planktonic algae in particular, can proliferate. Above 18 mg/l, the oxygen content of the water and the density of wildlife populations are also decreasing. This situation is called eutrophication (Ministère de la transition écologique, 2020 [a], p.4; OFB, 2020 [a], p.78; OIEAU, 2020 [a], p.12; Sutton et al., 2011, p.xxix).

Conventional farm animal producers are responsible for a large portion of nitrate pollution. Yet, in France for example, they pay very low charges for the excess of nitrogen and phosphorus they generate in the aquatic environment. If they raise fewer than 90 dairy cows or 450 sows or 3,000 chickens for instance (equivalent to 90 dairy cows in French law), they do not have to pay anything. If farm animal producers raise more animals, more than 90 dairy cows for instance, then they have to pay 3 euros per dairy cow and per year. A producer raising 6,000 chickens will pay about 600 euros a year for nitrogen and phosporus pollution, or 0.10 euro per chicken (AEAP, 2008 [a]; Ministère de la transition écologique, 2020 [a], p.32; Parlement français, 2020 [a], art. L213-10-2).

V.3. Organic agriculture: calculated marginalization

In rural watersheds where organic agriculture has been the predominant form of agriculture for several years and unlike areas dominated by conventional agriculture, the aquatic environment normally benefits a lot from it. Predominant organic agriculture in these watersheds generally makes chemical water quality much better than in the same watersheds dominated by conventional agriculture based on synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. In addition, when organic agriculture is well managed, it can contribute to the restoration of the whole ecological status of water bodies.

In France and elsewhere in the EU, organic agriculture rapidly grew during the 2010s. From 2014 to 2021 in France, it more than doubled its area, from 1.1 million to 2.8 million hectares.But watersheds where organic agriculture is prevalent represent a tiny minority of all watersheds, both in France and the European Union. In 2021, 90 percent of the French utilized agricultural area remained conventional. It is a gigantic area sick of the excess of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Conventional agriculture remains by far the number one priority in agriculture for the French State and the agribusiness industry. We can draw the same conclusion in all EU member States. In 2021, no more than 9.9 percent of the EU’s utilized agricultural area was organic. Sales of organic food have been going down in different areas in these early 2020s, notably in France. These declining sales are due to both inflation and growing economic hardships for most people. This phenomenon might lead to the stagnation or shrinkage of the organic agricultural area across France and Europe over time (Agence bio, 2020 [a], p.23; Le Point, 2022; Ministère ASA, 2022; Toute l’Europe, 2023).

French organic agriculture and the restoration of water bodies in agricultural areas face numerous obstacles. For instance, less than 6 percent of the French area used to grow grains and oil plants was certified organic in 2021. Yet, grains and oils are two prominent agricultural sectors in France that extend over 11 million hectares of conventional fields. By comparison, only 50,000 hectares or so are used to grow organic vegetables in France. In the Artois-Picardie basin district in the northernmost French region, less than 3 percent of the farmland is organic (Agence bio, 2022 [a], p.13; Agreste, 2020 [a], p.10).

The EU funds for organic agriculture allocated through the Common agricultural policy (CAP) of the EU do not improve water quality in water bodies. On the contrary, these funds tend to make the problem even worse. The CAP is passed by the EU to help farmers. The CAP decision-makers are the European commission, the EU council of agriculture ministers and the European parliament. Between 2023 and 2027, out of 9 billion euros of CAP funds going to the French agriculture, less than 350 million euros will go to French organic agriculture, that is 4 percent of CAP funds for France. The fact that the French government allocated 90 million euros of emergency funding to avoid the collapse of many French organic farms in 2024 does not change anything in the overwhelming predominance of conventional agriculture. 95 percent of agricultural subsidies still go to conventional agriculture. As proven by this underinvestment, the CAP decision-makers make it clear that it does not much matter to them that conventional agriculture be largely responsible for the poor quality of a great number of water bodies across the nation (Ministère ASA, 2022 [b]; Ministère ASA, 2022 [c]; Ministère ASA, 2024 [a])

V.4. « Wasted » water

Undeniable progress have been made on the management of wastewater and wastewater treatment plants in much of the European Union since the 1990s. They have reduced their adverse impacts on water bodies. Treatment efficiency in these plants has substantially improved thanks to investments made by the EU, its member States and local governments. However, in 2018, urban waste water was still a “significant pressure” on plenty of surface water bodies across the EU, and notably on about 2,400 water bodies in France, 1,900 water in Spain, 2,100 in Germany or 1,700 in Italy (Comité de bassin Artois-Picardie, 2020 [a], p.65-67, 70 ; EEA, 2020 [a], p.35, 55 ; EEA, 2018 [b]).

There is an additionnal problem: this “significant pressure” caused by urban waste water almost completely disregards emerging pollutants. They are for the most part residue of drugs and personal care products. In wastewater treatment plants, the elimination rates of these emerging pollutants are generally deficient. According to different studies, elimination rates that drop below 70 percent or even 30 percent are not rare, for example for residues of antibiotics, antidepressants and beta-blockers. What is not eliminated is released into water bodies. Adequate treatments of emerging pollutants inside waste water treatment plants are still rare, in part because of their high cost. Two of these treatments are called reverse osmosis (removes contaminants from water when pressure forces it through a semipermeable membrane) and the costly and energy-inefficient ozonation process (technique based on the infusion of ozone into water, the ozone being produced by subjecting oxygen to high electric voltage or UV radiation) (Choubert et al. 2012, p.12-13; Comité de bassin Artois-Picardie, 2020 [a], p.65-67, 70; EEA, 2020 [a], p.35, 55 ; EEA, 2018 [b]; Natura-Sciences, 2020; Soulier et al., 2011, p.72-75).

Stormwater runoff is another generally poorly treated issue which reduces the gains made in waste water treatment. National and local governments have made some efforts for the last thirty years to deal with it. But on the scale of river basin districts or large metropolitan areas, their efforts have almost never been rising to the challenge of stormwater runoff.

In rural areas, stormwater runoff laden with agricultural chemicals (nitrogen and pesticides among others), washing into waterways, is a big issue.

In cities, the problem is different. Damages caused to water bodies by stormwater runoff have two main origins:

  1. The excessive concentration of people and economic activities in areas that are too densely built. City streets can become “streams” during heavy rainfall; sometimes, the soil partly washes away on construction sites and roads.

  2. The ubiquity of impervious areas worsens the issue of urban overbuilding.

Overall, in EU cities, despite local progress when urban planning has been well thought out, urban runoff has gotten worse for more than thirty years. From 1990 to 2018, artificial land areas have nibbled more than 500 km² of EU land per year, hence a worsened water pollution in the affected areas. Even in southern EU cities where climate change should result in less rain, heavy rainfall during shorter periods should lead to more water pollution (Pistocchi, 2020).

During heavy rainfall, the pipes of the combined sewer networks are not big enough to carry all the water. So the surplus is directly discharged into surface waters through stormwater overflows1. “Discharges from these overflows can contain solids, organic compounds, fecal contaminants, nutrients, heavy metals, as well as micropollutants”. Unlike combined sewer networks, the  “separate sewer systems collect stormwater independently from sanitary wastewater”. With seperate sewer networks, stormwater is discharged into nearby water bodies (Benisch et al., 2020).

Concretely, within the Artois-Picardie district of 4.7 million people in northern France, emissions of sewer networks into water are not as high as they used to be in the 1990s. But they do remain consequential. 85 percent of the Artois-Picardie sewer networks are combined ones. During the late 2010s, their annual emissions into water amounted to 15,000 tons for materials in suspension, 23,000 tons for organic materials and 3,600 tons for nitrogen. On top of these discharges, 4,600 tons/year of materials in suspension, 5,500 tons/year of organic materials and 800 tons/year of nitrogen were discharged in water because of leaks and missing connections on the networks and the like. Moreover, the separate sewer networks discharged 3,500 tons/year of materials in suspension, 4,200 tons of organic materials and 720 tons of nitrogen in water bodies (Comité de bassin Artois-Picardie, 2020 [a], p.65-67, 70, 101).

If ecological restoration all by itself cannot put an end to the pollution of water bodies, it can, if carefully managed, reduce it while reestablishing the functions of water bodies.

V.5. Underfunded ecological restoration

When it comes to the EU floodplains, the European environmental agency’s latest report said that their situation was “critical”. 95 percent of the original floodplains have been converted to uses which hinder natural water uptake. The example of the Danube is striking: “Of the former 26,000 km² of floodplain area along the Danube and its major tributaries, about 20,000 km² has been isolated by levees” Even among the remaining 5 percent of EU floodplains, many have lost much of their natural function(EEA, 2020 [a], p.73).

Today, is ecological restoration living up to the needs of floodplains and other water bodies? Decision-makers on the management of watersheds praise the ecological restoration done in their region in official documents. And it is true that good ecological restoration work is done in all basin districts. But in France for example, it is usually done on very short river segments; also, it often treats only a part of the problem affecting a water body. Decision-makers do not dwell on the systematic and systemic underfunding of this activity that they, among others, are responsible for.

By validating the 2022-2027 budget for the Artois-Picardie basin district, the decision-makers concerned allocated a meager 10 percent of that budget to the restoration and preservation of aquatic ecosystems. That is 248 million euros out of a total budget of 2.36 billion euros, or less than 42 millions euros per year. Yet, the work that needs to be done in this 20,000 km² district is huge, whether it is on the restoration of ecological continuity, of river flows, of their riparian areas of adjacent wetlands, or of the diversity and abundance of aquatic wildlife. To give an idea of what needs to be done, there are 2,700 obstacles that hinder ecological continuity in Artois-Picardie such as dams, locks or sills. In 2018, the average cost for only one restoration operation of ecological continuity was about 100,000 euros. So at least 270 million euros would be necessary to restore ecological continuity throughout Artois-Picardie. Another expenditure in the Grand Est region to restore the natural bed of a small river on about two kilometers amounts to 320,000 euros for a good restoration operation, but only a partial one (AEAP, 2021 [a]; France 3 Grand Est, 2022; Préfet coordonnateur du bassin Artois-Picardie, 2021, p.13, 21; Sénat, 2018).

The word restoration tends to be misused by decision-makers. In its annual reports, the Artois-Picardie water agency boasted about the “restoration” of 53 kilometers of rivers in 2019, 169 km in 2021 or 86 km in 2022. In fact, it was only a partial restoration of these river segments. In other words, these decision-makers can easily delude people into thinking that these kilometers were restored in the most satisfactory fashion. In reality, in most cases, the restoration that has been done and praised is not full restoration. The latter would mean restoring the historical river flows, but also restoring river banks and bottoms, riparian habitats and their wildlife within a well-functioning floodplain without the pollution that prevents a very good ecological status for the water body (AEAP, 2019 [a], p.14-15; AEAP, 2022 [a], p.15; AEAP, 2023 [a], p.5).




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