Fertilising regulation: Balancing human health and innovation

Written by Marc Tarabella on 10 July 2017 in Opinion

Updating the fertilizers regulation must not be used as an excuse for a backdoor revision of the nitrates directive, warns Marc Tarabella.

Marc Tarabella | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

The proposal for a regulation laying down the rules for the placing on the market of EC fertilizers is part of the circular economy package. This optional harmonisation regulation contributes to the development of the circular economy by creating new ways of recycling waste, animal by-products or recycling nutrients and expanding the supply of CE marked fertilizers. In the current provisions, only mineral fertilizers may bear this marking. The new regulation is therefore a major step forward. 

It is essential to find a balance between promoting innovation to encourage the circular economy and protecting human health and the environment. It is necessary to apply the precautionary principle and ensure the non-hazardous nature of these new innovative products, as is the case for bio-stimulants, for example.

My colleagues and I are therefore working to obtain a text that reflects a good balance between promotion of the circular economy, product quality for the farmer, and protection of human health and the environment.


One of my biggest concerns regarding this regulation is a possible revision through the back door of the nitrates directive. This fundamental piece of EU environmental legislation, established in 1991, aims to protect water quality across Europe by preventing nitrates from agricultural sources polluting ground and surface water.

To this end, certain restrictions on the use of manure in polluted areas are put in place, which includes a limit of 170kg nitrogen per hectare per year on livestock manure. This limit is essential in order to protect human health, and water ecosystems, and to keep the costs of drinking water provisions at reasonable levels.

Currently, there is an attempt to use the revision of the fertilizers regulation to amend the definition of manure in the nitrates directive, by excluding processed manure with a nitrate fertilizer replacement value of 80 per cent from the rules applied.

In practice, that would mean that the application of processed manure in areas above the environmental safety threshold of 170 kg N/ha in water polluted areas would be allowed.

However, it is important to stress that the limit of 170kg N/ha limit only applies to polluted areas, so it does not apply to more than 40 per cent of the agricultural land of the EU.

Therefore, the nitrates directive does not hinder in any way the development of manure processing, as processed manure can still be freely traded and used in the areas that are not subject to those restrictions.

Moreover, the establishment of a certain land-based manure limit is one way of maintaining the relationship between the number of animals and the available land, ensuring that the number of animals will remain consistent with the carrying capacity and absorption of the environment where these animals are raised, avoiding unsustainable intensification, and encouraging reasoned agriculture.

Finally, the potential reopening of nitrates directive raises a problem of competence with regards to Parliament's internal market and consumer protection committee, since the legal basis of the regulation on fertilizers is Article 114 TFEU, designed to guarantee the functioning of the internal market and to partially harmonise the conditions for CE-marked fertilising products to be put on the market, while the nitrates directive is based on Article 191 of the TFEU, namely the preservation, protection and improvement of the quality of the environment.

In conclusion, reopening the nitrates directive would mean reopening a Pandora's box and this is neither the place nor the time to do so.


About the author

Marc Tarabella (BE) is Parliament's S&D group shadow rapporteur on making available on the market of CE marked fertilising products

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