A broad-scale spatial analysis of the environmental benefits of fertiliser closed periods implemented under the Nitrates Directive in Europe
Nutrient pollution from agriculture has been an ongoing challenge for decades, contributing to numerous negative environmental impacts. In the European Union policies have been developed to address nutrient pollution, including Nitrate Action Programmes under Council Directive 91/676/EEC. Although Member States report on progress on implementation, there have been few studies that explore how measures have been implemented; the environmental implications of any differences; and how they vary spatially on a European scale. This study aims to address this gap with respect to fertiliser closed periods (1155 different closed periods across 69 Nitrate Action Programmes). This included the development of an approach that can be applied using readily available spatial data. Each closed period was scored for its coverage of risk periods for losses of nitrate; organic material; nitrous oxide and ammonia. Closed periods were then matched to relevant combinations of spatial data for each environmental zone and fertiliser type. The scores for each combination were used to create maps and calculate spatial statistics. The results show that in addition to nitrate, closed periods also reduce the risk of organic material run-off, emissions of nitrous oxide and to a lesser extent ammonia. However, risk reduction is spatially variable across all the impacts and the scope for synergy is also variable (e.g. nitrate loss does not always correlate with nitrous oxide or ammonia risk reduction). Regions in the Atlantic, Lustanian and some areas within the Mediterranean zones appear to provide the greatest combined risk reduction, with other zones, especially in eastern Europe, having a lower combined risk reduction (due to a combination of different risk periods coupled with lower coverage of individual risks). The spatial analysis within this study is relatively simple; is based on a snapshot of closed periods during 2019-2020; and only explores one measure. However, it does provide some useful data and insights that could support policy development in the future. This includes scope for Member States and regions to learn from others where greater coverage of risk periods has been achieved; and highlighting how a more holistic perspective can be taken to the environmental management of nutrients. As we strive towards developing sustainable production systems, farmers and policy makers need to take a more integrated approach to incorporate additional environmental objectives; which increases the complexity of the challenge. Consequently, the demand for pragmatic approaches that take a more holistic approach is likely to increase in the future.