The Flemish fertilizer policy was wedged between Europe and angry farmers

Our poor water quality, viewed with suspicion by the EU Commission, makes stricter fertilizer rules inevitable for Environment Minister Zuhal Demir (N-VA). ‘But this plan is very far from agricultural practice’, is criticized.

The essential measures for farmers in the draft Seventh Fertilizer Action Plan (MAP7) by Environment Minister Zuhal Demir (N-VA) are confusing the agricultural sector and also raising eyebrows in the Flemish government. The negotiations will not start until after the autumn holidays, but Demir’s opening offer with firm fertilizer rules is considered ‘very firm’ by the Flemish cabinets in CD&V and Open VLD.

In the VRT program ‘The ideal world’, N-VA chairman Bart De Wever said that Demir’s proposal – as De Tijd reported on Saturday – aims high, so that a sensible compromise can eventually be reached. Demir also said in ‘The Seventh Day’ that it ‘cannot be taken or left’, although the message before that was that it ‘will be difficult to go much lower’.

That Demir sees the stricter rules as inevitable is because Europe views the problem with mistrust. The measures that had already been presented by the Minister of the Environment were not sufficient for the committee. In a letter, Europe requests that more be done to bring all waterways to a ‘good condition’ by 2027 and specifically mentions the reduction of the Flemish livestock.

Demir fears fines, infringement proceedings or judgments at the European Court of Justice if it fails. As in the lead-up to the nitrogen agreement, she outlines the horror scenario of a license freeze when a judge judges that the Flemish policy does not comply with European guidelines.

Algae blooms

Over-fertilization is an important reason why only one of the 195 Flemish streams is in good condition. The latest Flemish fertilizer report shows that there was too much nitrate in the surface water in a third of the measuring points. For phosphorus, there was an excess in almost six out of ten measuring points.

Rules from proposal MAP7

  • Cultivation-free zone of 6 meters along all streams.
  • Maximum fertilizer standards reduced by 15 percent.
  • Full fertilizer ban after 1 August from 2024.
  • Convert fields to grassland or forest if there is too much risk of soil erosion.
  • Expansion of areas with poor water quality (purple areas).
  • Harvest ban for potatoes and vegetables after 1 September in purple areas.
  • Conversion to more organic farming.

Unabsorbed nitrate and phosphorus are washed into streams in the winter when it rains more. Too much nitrogen, a component of nitrate, in surface water is harmful to biodiversity. About 60 percent of the nitrogen that is washed into our waterways comes from agriculture, the rest comes from households that are not yet connected to the sewage system for their waste water.

Nitrogen causes algal blooms in common surface waters and oceans. At night, these algae absorb oxygen, causing all higher life, such as fish and plants, to die.

Erik Meers

Professor at the Faculty of Life Sciences (UGent)

“Nitrogen causes algal blooms in ordinary surface water and seas. At night, these algae absorb oxygen, which causes all higher life, such as fish and plants, to die,’ says Erik Meers, professor at the Faculty of Biosciences at Ghent University. ‘In recent decades we have seen large areas in the ocean where life disappeared.’

The same dynamic is taking place in many waterways, although Flanders is not the only region with this problem. Manure is also an important cause of poor water quality in the Netherlands, Germany, northern and southern Spain, northern Italy and Denmark. “We are in the group of regions that engage in intensive agriculture”, says Meers.

Blunt axe

Meers finds the measures Demir would take in return ‘too far-reaching’. “Everyone agrees that water quality must be improved and that the Minister for the Environment must enforce the European guidelines. But these are primarily blind, generic targets.’

With extra strict rules in much of Flanders, such as a post-September 1 harvest ban on late potatoes and vegetables, Demir is wielding the ‘blunt axe’ on farmers and the processing industry, according to Meers. “Generic measures do not take into account areas that perform better, soil composition or texture, or certain crops that are less sensitive to nitrate loss. Nor is it about technology, such as drones for precision insemination.’

According to Meers, another missing factor in the plan is the replacement of fertilizers. “The paradox is that we use an enormous amount of fertilizer produced with natural gas, while we are left with surplus manure. The nitrogen from these surpluses could be processed and used as a fertilizer substitute. Europe forbids it. Flanders can request an exception, but will not.’

All chances

The crop-free strip of six meters along streams would also mean a drastic reduction of the area. According to the research center ILVO, up to 25,000 hectares of agricultural land can be lost in this way. ‘This is an opening offer that is very far from agricultural practice, which makes it very difficult to negotiate,’ says Meers.

Demir does not want to answer substantively for the time being because the proposal is still on the drawing board and she wants to give the hearings every opportunity. That the sharp one-liners – from the ‘burial of the Belgian ferrets’ to ‘an organized attack’ on a preliminary plan – have flown back and forth in recent days shows that it will be an agreement on the package in particular. difficult.

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