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The Baltic Sea is in trouble 

Over 97% of the Baltic Sea is now affected by eutrophication, and sustainable agricultural measures are a critical part of the solution. We need to adopt more sustainable practices and policies so that 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. This, 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 compared with the past 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 the improvement of wastewater treatment facilities and curbing of 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 it difficult to find solutions that fit the whole catchment.

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. A significant increase of manure and other fertilizers is one potential environmental consequence of this and, if mismanaged, can further exacerbate the problem of eutrophication.

Germany – Sonja-Ritter 2019-06-28-Ostseelandwirt-Wilfried-Lenschow-01-c-Sonja-Ritter-WWF (11)

The solution lies in agricultural policy and practice — and consumer choices

Sustainable agricultural practices

A major solution to the problem of eutrophication lies in the adoption of more sustainable farming practices. This includes methods 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.

However, in order to make sustainable agriculture a reality across the entire Baltic Sea region, we need to do more than encourage farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural practices. Policy reforms, regulatory frameworks and improved market conditions are also needed to support and enable the collective transition.

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 are major drivers when it comes to reshaping the way our food system looks today. The most significant influencer of regional agricultural practices are the subsidies provided by the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which have historically promoted the adoption of intensified and unsustainable agriculture practices.

A reformed CAP is needed in order to support the next generation of farmers and propel 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. We need a system where farmers are paid for their contributions to the ecosystem, not just production. This change ensures economic stability for farmers and a healthier planet for all.

Our asks for reforming the CAP:

  • Investing fully in the transition: CAP funds should be repurposed to deliver a Common Agricultural, Food and Land Stewardship Policy that supports the transformation of the agriculture sector towards sustainability and resilience. This includes rewarding land managers for good stewardship of land and natural resources and for the delivery of ecosystem services.
  • Ending untargeted or harmful subsidies: Rapidly phase out area-based income-support payments and subsidies linked to production that negatively impact the environment. This includes ending support for unsustainable irrigation, intensive livestock rearing, or farming on drained peatlands. This allows the EU’s agricultural budget to fund the socially-just transformation of the food and agriculture sector towards sustainability.
  • Establishing a just transition mechanism and fair conditions for farmers: Transitioning to sustainable practices can be challenging for some farm types. A just transition mechanism should be put in place to financially support and provide advice for these farms, ensuring a good livelihood for farmers from their market income and reducing dependency on subsidies.
  • Focusing on performance and accountability: Introduce a robust set of quantitative targets and impact indicators at both EU and national levels, accompanied by strong accountability mechanisms. This includes regular performance reviews and penalties for missed targets, ensuring that CAP funds are effectively used towards achieving climate and environmental objectives.
  • Setting a new sustainable food system governance: Reform the governance of the CAP to reflect wider societal needs and ensure that policy making is aligned with sustainability objectives. Strengthen links between the CAP and environmental and market regulation legislation.
  • Supporting a more transparent and digital administration: Increase transparency and digitalization of CAP administration to simplify management for farmers and authorities. Collect and utilize detailed farm data for independent policy evaluations, ensuring proportionality with the level of support.

What we choose to eat

Another major driver of agricultural production are the choices made by consumers and the companies in the food production and retail sector. 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 – if we do eat meat—by eating less and better meat. Many people in middle income and developed countries, as well as in wealthier 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 greatly benefit the climate, natural habitats, biodiversity, and the environment.


Last modified 31/05/24

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