Protecting water quality: How do we ensure that agriculture does not put water quality at risk?
Water quality can be impacted by point pollution and diffuse pollution caused by fertilizers and crop protection products.
Typically, 50 to 90 percent of pesticide pollution in ground and surface water comes from point pollution sources in agriculture - for example, spillages, incorrect cleaning of spraying equipment or illegal disposal of leftover spray solutions.
These incidents can be avoided by following Good Agricultural Practices.
Diffuse water pollution through pesticides occurs either due to spray drift, surface runoff, drainage losses or leaching to groundwater. When good farming practices are followed, significant pollution incidents are very rare, and risks can be further reduced by adapting the application of crop protection products in vulnerable areas (e.g. karstic areas) as well as through appropriate risk reduction measures, such as establishing vegetated buffer strip alongside surface water bodies.
The key element for the protection of water is the correct use of crop protection products. Many companies, farmers' an farmers associations, governments, authorities and agricultural advisors initiate and support training programs, such as The Voluntary Initiative in the UK or Pesticide Environmental Stewardship in the US.
The initiative TOPPS Water Protection, established by the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), develops practical risk diagnosis concepts for catchments and best management practices for water protection. Various demonstrations in catchments across Europe will show how water protection concepts can be successfully implemented to achieve good water quality in agricultural landscapes.
As a company, BASF continues to inform and train farmers on general best management practices for water protection by providing information and training material to advisors and farmers. In addition to general water protection measures, BASF defines and promotes specific use requirements for relevant products, such as reduced maximum application rates or use restrictions in vulnerable areas.
Correct use of crop protection products is a core element of water protection. However, water protection must be considered at every stage. This approach, called product stewardship, involves the responsible and ethical management of crop protection products over their entire life cycle, from initial development through usage and on to final disposal.
For BASF, product stewardship begins at the research and development stage. One example is our so-called “stick & stay” formulation technology that enables a product to stick to the leaf instead of being washed off into the soil and potentially further on into groundwater by the next rain. Likewise, innovations like BASF’s EcoMatic®, a unique packaging and closed-transfer delivery system that operates during filling and mixing, protects operators and water resources by reducing the risk for spilling incidents.
In Germany, BASF participates in the round table of the drinking water and crop protection industries. This cooperation manages an early-warning database system, allowing partners to intervene with water protection measures before the legal limit for crop protection product residues in water wells used for drinking water production is exceeded. In this way, productive agriculture, supported by responsible use of plant protection products, can be aligned with the need for clean drinking water.
Our commitment continues through to the disposal of empty containers. BASF supports container collection and disposal programs like inpEV in Brazil, which reduce the risk of crop protection products entering water from dumping sites of discarded containers.
When modern technologies like our crop protection products are used correctly, they do not put water bodies at risk. In fact, they enable a more efficient use of water in agriculture. Both are needed: a productive agriculture providing increased and secured yields, as well as good quality water resources.
In all regions of the world, avoiding point pollution sources is the first and most effective step to keep water quality high and meet legal requirements. By implementing best practices, most point pollution incidents can be avoided and a significant improvement of water quality in agricultural catchments can be achieved.
Additional stewardship activities - aiming to reduce also diffuse pollution sources - are required in Europe to meet the special legal requirements. While in most regions of the world, legislation has established health-based threshold values for individual pesticides in water, Europe has established within the context of the EU Water Framework Directive a much lower general limit value for pesticides of 0.1 µg/L for drinking water resources and groundwater - equivalent to a pinch of salt dissolved in the amount of water in an Olympic swimming pool. This value is not based on health data but rather expresses the political will that pesticide residues in these water resources shall be near zero.
For surface water bodies, individual limit values were established for many pesticides (EQS: environmental quality standards). These consider a specific compound’s toxicity to water-based organisms. Usually, the EQS values are much higher than the drinking water limits, but in some rare instances, they can also be lower (e.g. for some insecticides).