EU turns to technology to reverse farm pollution
Agricultural pollution is a worse problem in other EU countries than in Ireland, to the point where EU funding is going into finding new ways to extract phosphorous and nitrates from the water. Phosphorous is widely used in agricultural fertilisers, but also in detergents, household cleaning products, and industrial processes. As a result, more phosphorus has been measured in lakes and rivers in recent years.
An EU project in Spain is testing new, natural-based coagulants in tertiary wastewater treatment processes, to replace potentially toxic synthetic coagulants, and improve the efficiency and effectiveness phosphorous removal.
Sludge from the treatment process will be used to produce biogas. Groundwater pollution can be a problem in intensively farmed areas, such as the province of Granada in southern Spain. Nitrates, phosphates, and agrochemicals in soil percolate into aquifers, affecting water quality. To address this problem, another EU-funded project will develop and demonstrate a new biological treatment method to remove organic and inorganic nutrients such as pesticides and nitrates from water. It is expected to remove 90% of those nutrients and make significant energy and cost savings in comparison with conventional treatment. Another EU-funded project aims to reduce the ammonia emissions associated with manure spreading on farms, by using the diluted liquid fraction of slurry and digestates in precision fertigation (fertilisers plus irrigation) techniques.
This project is also in Spain, one of six EU states that, in 2014, exceeded Emission Ceilings Directive ammonia limits. In large-scale field trials, the project will show if it’s possible to replace synthetic fertilisers and reduce the risks of eutrophication and nitrate leaching in agricultural soils.
Across the EU, an estimated 87% of groundwater is polluted by excess nitrates (in contrast, 2012 figures showed 85.6% of Irish groundwater aquifers had “good” status), and in intensive EU farming and cattle areas, the concentration in groundwater can reach one to seven times the legal level.
In Spain, an EU-funded project will build a prototype plant for cleaning water with a high nitrate content. The plant will feature an adsorption bed made of active silica, obtained through a second prototype for treating waste ashes from the controlled incineration of rice straw. The project also plans to raise awareness amongst farmers of reducing nitrates at source by cutting their use of nitrogen fertilisers.
The projects are part of an EU investment package of €222 million to support transition to a more sustainable and low-carbon future.
The funding will mobilise additional investments, leading to a total of €377m going towards 139 new projects in 20 EU states.
Removing nitrate and phosphorous pollution of water from agriculture is an EU-funded research objective.