The Baltic Sea is in trouble, and sustainable agricultural measures are a critical part of the solution.
Over 97% of the Baltic Sea is now affected by eutrophication and agricultural measures are a major part of the solution. We need to adopt more sustainable practices and policies so we can reduce nutrient loads and allow the Baltic Sea to recover.
Eutrophication of the Baltic Sea
Eutrophication is the enrichment of nutrients in an ecosystem. Excessive amounts of nutrients encourage the growth of algae and other aquatic plants which, in turn, leads to a multitude of disruptive effects within marine ecosystems such as extensive algae blooms and oxygen depletion — to the ultimate detriment of marine life and human health.
As a semi-enclosed, intercontinental shelf sea, the Baltic Sea is particularly sensitive to the effects of nutrient runoff and eutrophication of the Baltic Sea has been going on for decades. According to one recent study, the levels of hypoxia (areas with little or no oxygen) we see today are unprecedented over the last 1,500 years.
The good news is that many of the worst point sources of pollution have already been addressed and significant gains have been made, including by improving wastewater treatment facilities and addressing industry runoff. However, agricultural activities – which account for nearly half of all nitrogen and phosphorus input – continue to be a major source of nutrient loading to the Baltic Sea.
Addressing nutrient runoff in such a large catchment area over several countries is a challenge. Agricultural loads mostly originate from non-point sources and are discharged over a wide area of land. Furthermore, farming in the Baltic Sea varies from country to country. Climate, soil, water, and socio-economic circumstances differ, making finding solutions to fit the whole catchment difficult.
Intensifying the challenge is a recent trend indicating a structural transformation. Largely driven by technological advances and profit incentives, farms around the Baltic Sea are becoming more specialized, and larger and fewer in number. Among other potential environmental consequences, is a significant increase of manure and other fertilizers which, if mismanaged, can further exacerbate the problem of eutrophication.
Sustainable agricultural practices
Adoption of sustainable agricultural practices and policy reforms, as well as regulatory frameworks and improved market conditions are needed for the Baltic Sea region to collectively transition to a sustainable agriculture.
A major solution to the problem of eutrophication lies in the adoption of more sustainable farming practices. This includes methods that are focused on keeping nutrients and water on land, utilizing fertilizers more efficiently, and reducing runoff. Farmers committed to making more sustainable choices can help protect watersheds, preserve and restore critical habitats, and improve soil health and water quality — in addition to supplying the region with food and jobs.
Regional policies shape farming
While farmers are a vital part of the solution, they are not often in a position to influence a substantial part of the problem. Policies, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, are a major driver in reshaping the way our food system looks today.
The most significant drivers of regional agricultural practices are the subsidies provided by the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which have promoted the adoption of intensified and unsustainable agriculture practices.
A reformed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is needed to support the next generation of farmers and drive forward the transition towards a sustainable agricultural model – one in which the future of food production is resilient, profitable, and beneficial for both people and the environment.
What we choose to eat
The choices made by consumers and the companies in the food production and retail sector are another major driver of agricultural production – and this is where a collective movement towards a more sustainable production and diet becomes necessary.
As a global community, we can reduce our environmental footprint by increasing the proportion of plant-based products in our diets and – when we do eat meat—by eating less and better meat. Many people in middle income and developed countries, as well as wealthier people in developing countries, consume more animal proteins than what is required for nutrition alone with adverse impacts on the planet. Not only would such dietary and production changes be better for human health, but they would also benefit the climate, natural habitats, biodiversity, and the environment.
Last modified 13/04/22