Sea of Change

Swedish freelance journalist Gunnel Bergström reviews some of the efforts to reduce agricultural run-off in the Baltic Sea. She concludes that progress has been slow yet promising.

Agri-environmental issues are currently a high priority in the countries around the Baltic Sea. Not only for farmers, fisherman and bathers but also for water quality experts and international funding organisations.

But efforts to reduce non-point source pollution in the Baltic date back considerably further than 1999. The Baltic Agricultural Run-off Action Programme (BAAP) started in 1994 with the objective of improving Baltic Sea water quality and local surface water and groundwater sources by reducing nutrient loads in drainage water from arable land.

Parallel to this, efforts have focused on promoting sustainable agricultural practices in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Russia. “The most important work has been to make farmers and agricultural advisers more aware of the environmental effects of their existing practices,” says Programme Co-ordinator, Staffan Lund.

HELCOM and Baltic 21

The Helsinki Commission, or HELCOM, endorsed the Baltic Sea Environment Action Programme as early as 1992 with the objective of restoring the ecological balance of the Baltic Sea.

As agriculture is regarded as the largest anthropogenic source of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Baltic, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) was given the responsibility of co-ordinating the programme together with a Steering Group. In the first phase, the Swedish Government gave SEK25M to SLU as a contribution to its work within HELCOM.

When Baltic 21 was launched in 1996, agriculture became one of the six sectors in an agenda 21 for a sustainable Baltic Sea Region. BAAP was enclosed in this broader context.

In the first phase of BAAP, family farmers were the main target group with the exception of the St. Petersburg Region, where large scale joint-stock companies participated in the programme. Most of the activities were located in selected watersheds where demonstration farms, field plot trials, monitoring and education were the important instruments of communication with farmers.

Farmers were taught manure handling, crop rotation, catch crops and how to reduce the use of artificial fertilisers.

In addition to activities in the demonstration watersheds, education programmes were launched on a national level to disseminate the BAAP message to a broader public.

Short projects not enough

BAAP consists of four parts:

  1. to help the countries develop agri-environmental legislation;
  2. to develop agricultural organisations and authorities;
  3. to educate farmers and agricultural advisers;
  4. to create demonstration areas, one or two in every country.

Staffan Lund from SLU has been working with BAAP from the start. “Today, agriculture is responsible for 30-40% of the nitrogen and 20% of the phosphorous that ends up in the Baltic Sea,” he says.

He reckons that BAAP efforts have had little effect so far. “We have learnt that short project periods are not enough to see any difference. High nutrient deposits in soil date back to Soviet times. After the Soviet breakdown, the post-Soviet republics were very poor and could not afford to use artificial fertilisers and chemical pesticides.

“But now they are beginning again. That is why the timing is extra important — to have the farmers look at what they use and what effect it has on water,” says Lund.

Political will

Even though results are not apparent yet, Lund is still impressed. “There are a lot of groups who have started to co-operate outside the framework of BAAP. Many local organisations are becoming very active. And there seems to be a political will to take over some of the costs within the countries themselves.

“It is very difficult to work with agriculture. The units are small and spread over a wide area,” Lund explains. Nevertheless, several younger farmers have found it interesting to work with BAAP, especially where it has resulted in more efficient farming and a better economy.

“Maybe they are not as interested in Baltic Sea quality as in their local environment, where badly stored manure may spread diseases and contaminate the drinking water. They are also concerned about the surrounding landscape, which they want to keep open.”

Agricultural diversity

BAAP does not only promote organic farming. Diversity is very much the key. “We want to try different methods and exchange experience, either in organic farming or conventional farming which is directed towards saving resources,” Lund explains.

To save resources means maximising the uptake of nitrogen in food. In Sweden, 3kg of nitrogen put into arable land, will result in 1kg in food. In Estonia, the relationship is 1kg in food out of a 10kg input. This inefficiency is a heritage from Soviet agriculture, with heavy machines and over-exploitation of the soil. “Thanks to better methods of ploughing and sowing, the return will be much higher,” Lund says.

Another tradition inherited from the planned economy was the habit of keeping too many animals in one place. Many farms still have vast stores of manure from thousands of cows, pigs and hens and frequently these deposits are situated very close to groundwater wells. Farms now tend to be smaller, and in the near future more and more farmers are likely to put up cement containers for safer manure storage.

Baltic watersheds have been incorporated in national monitoring programmes which are already being extended to include the whole region.

When taking groundwater samples, it is obvious that some areas are especially vulnerable and exposed. These are carst regions with crackelated limestone in northern Lithuania as well as in the north of Estonia. “Local pollution may be transported over large distances in the rock layers and show up in other places,” says Lund.

Towards a regional perspective

The Baltic Agricultural Run-off Action Programme is now in its second phase up to 2002. The project is changing in several ways: not only will the programme embrace nutrient run-off, but animal health, better quality of food and better production as a whole.

The focus of BAAP is also changing from national projects to a wider perspective covering the whole Baltic Sea drainage area, where the former eastern republics are not the only countries guilty of nutrient and phosphorous discharges.

Co-operation between Lithuania and Kaliningrad around the River Nemunas is growing, as the Kuronian lagoon is still severely eutrophic. A secretariat has been set up at the Lithuanian Institute of Water Management in Kedainiai. And a website will soon be available to disseminate information and create a forum for dialogue.

  • Swedish study compares organic and conventional farming

    At the end of February 2000, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SNF) released a report comparing plant nutrient losses in organic and conventional farming. The study was made by the Swedish Institute of Agricultural Engineering (JTI).

    There were some major findings: one was that organic farming has a lower animal density, which results in reduced nitrogen run-off. But as yet there is no significant difference in the level of nitrogen run-off from organic and conventional farms.

    SNF wants the Swedish Government to draw up a strategy stopping the concentration of farms with high animal densities.

    The environmental director of SNF, Svante Axelsson said that eastern European countries ‘should find their own way’ to a system of sustainable agriculture. “There is a risk that they copy the system of industrialised agriculture that you find in western countries. But they don’t have to make the same mistakes we did,” he said.

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