The use of pesticides, fertilizers and other agrochemicals has increased hugely since the 1950s. For example, the amount of pesticide sprayed on fields has increased 26-fold over the past 50 years.

These chemicals don't just stay on the fields they are applied to. Some application methods – such as pesticide spraying by aeroplane – lead to pollution of adjacent land, rivers or wetlands. Fertilizers and pesticides also commonly run-off from fields to adjacent rivers and lakes and contaminate groundwater sources.

Pesticides often don't just kill the target pest. Beneficial insects in and around the fields can be poisoned or killed, as can other animals eating poisoned insects. Pesticides can also kill soil microorganisms.

Danube River Basin Analysis

Hundreds of toxic chemicals are released into the Danube River Basin with serious threats to the environment. Many toxins come from agriculture. This was reported in the 2004 “Danube River Basin Analysis”, the first comprehensive analysis of the Danube environment and pressures impacting it. The Analysis was coordinated by the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR).

The Danube River Basin is home to 29 of the EU’s list of 33 “hazardous priority substances”, eleven of which are agricultural pesticides. Many are used in producing cereals, rapeseed, sunflower, maize, orchard fruits and grapes. Only three are authorized in all countries. The biggest threat is from DDT, a pesticide banned in Europe known to reduce the ability of both birds and fish to reproduce. In Danube samples taken, 71% exceeded permissible levels. In the Danube River Basin pesticides generally increase downstream.  “Alarming concentrations” can be found in the Lower Danube and in some tributaries, according to the “Danube River Basin Analysis”.
Nutrient pollution, mainly from the fertilizers nitrogen and phosphorus, is a serious concern also. Nitrogen use doubled from the 1950s to the mid-1980s followed by a substantial reduction in the late 1980s. But today, levels are still almost twice those of the 1950s.

Nitrogen is the most important mineral nutrient for plants, playing a crucial role in plant growth and photosynthesis. In soluble form, nitrogen becomes “nitrate” - easily leached from soil into water. And too much of it means pollution. One main source is the inappropriate or over-use of nitrogen fertilizers for crops like wheat.

Farming is also the second biggest source for phosphorus emissions in the Danube River Basin with a 32% share. Overall phosphorus levels are 20% higher than in the 1950s. Phosphorus, like nitrogen, is an essential nutrient for plant growth and maturity. But again, if too much is added through fertilizers, water pollution can result.

Meeting EU law

One of the best tools to ensure Danube waters stay clean from pesticides is the EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD), its main body of legislation for protecting water. EU countries are obliged by law to meet WFD objectives including achieving “good environmental status in all water bodies” by 2015. It also requires the complete phase-out of all 33 hazardous substances, including pesticides, within 20 years.


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WWF staff

Occupation: WWF staff
Location: Bulgaria


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pesticides | agriculture