Agriculture: More effective action needed to cut water pollution from farming


12/03/2012 - 

 OECD governments have made little overall progress in reducing water contamination from farming over the past decade, says a new report. Not only are pollutant levels high in many areas but sources of contamination are often spread widely across the landscape, making measurement and control difficult.

Tackling agricultural water pollution across OECD countries costs taxpayers billions of dollars annually. In addition to the expense of removing pollutants from drinking water and  of paying  farmers, for example, to help them store manure safely or create contamination buffers, there are wider costs to society and to the environment of contaminating rivers, lakes and coastal waters.


The rise in commodity prices over recent years – a trend forecast by the OECD and the Food and Agriculture Organisation to continue over the coming decade – has encouraged more intensive production, so increasing the risk of water pollution.

The OECD’s Water Quality and Agriculture: Meeting the Policy Challenge adds that even where low-pollution management systems have been adopted, there is sometimes a considerable time lag before water quality improves.

But the report says the scale of the damage caused to water by agriculture needs to be placed in perspective. For most OECD countries drinking water quality is high. Farming, although often the major source of pollution, is not the only culprit.

The key challenge for policy makers is to reduce farm contaminants - nutrients, pesticides, soil sediments, and veterinary products - which are lost into water systems, while encouraging higher water quality for recreational and other uses.

The report says policies pursued over many years to help farmers tackle pollution have generally failed to meet water quality policy goals. More effective policies are needed  to ensure the sustainable management of water quality in agriculture. The report’s recommendation include:

  • Enforcing compliance with existing water quality regulations and standards
  • Removing production and input related  support in agriculture in order to lower pressure on water systems
  • Using a mix of policy instruments
  • Adopting  the Polluter Pays Principle to reduce agricultural water contamination where practical
  • Setting realistic water policy targets and standards for agriculture
  • Improving the targeting of policies to areas where water pollution is most acute
  • Assessing the cost effectiveness of different policy options to improve water quality
  • Taking a holistic approach to agricultural pollution policies
  • Establishing information systems to better support farmers, water managers and policy makers

More effective action is essential, particularly as the projected growth and intensification of agricultural production over the coming years will place further pressure on water quality in many regions. Climate change will also complicate the task of meeting water quality objectives.

The report contains a number of case studies on agriculture and water pollution at the regional (European Union, the Baltic Sea) and national (France, Britain and  Australia) levels  as well as in specific areas (Lake Taupo, New Zealand and Chesapeake Bay, United States).

The report, as well as a number of background papers, are available on


For further information, journalists can contact Julien Hardelin in OECD’s Trade and Agriculture Directorate, Tel.:  + 331 (0) 1 45 24 15 28.


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