BRUSSELS — Some EU members states are still allowed to apply high levels of nitrogen to grassland, despite the long-adopted EU’s Water Framework Directive. The investigation contrasts the status of surface water in Ireland, where it is the case, and Italy, and reveals the impact of intensive dairy agriculture on aquatic life.

Intensive dairy agriculture - a major contributor to high levels of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus in water - is starving rivers of oxygen required for aquatic life. 

More than two decades after the adoption of the EU’s Water Framework Directive, less than 40% of Europe’s surface waters have a good ecological status. Despite this, Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands continue to receive a derogation from the Commission to apply increased levels of nitrogen to grassland to boost milk production, since halted in others after serious water quality issues.

The investigation examines the situation in two contrasting Member States. Ireland, which increased its herd by 40% in a decade, benefits from a derogation, though half of its surface waters are not capable of sustaining healthy ecosystems. Interviews with farmers and environmentalists highlight the situation which is comparable to the Netherlands and Denmark.

In Italy, the largely indoor intensive dairy operation regularly flaunts EU rules for nitrate pollution, which can impact on human water supplies. An increasing problem in the vast Po Valley, in the north of the country, is the concentrated nutrient levels due to the low river level because of climate change. Interviews with experts and environmentalists highlight the worsening of the situation and the lack of controls by the authorities in charge.

Photo credit: Cecilia Fasciani. "Close up of a large storage lagoon of liquid manure  close to a drainage canal in the area of intensive livestock farms in northern Italy."

Team members

Fergal MacErlean

Fergal MacErlean is an Irish freelance journalist and photographer .

Fergal MacErlean investigative journalist

Cecilia Fasciani

Cecilia Fasciani (1995) is an Italian freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker.


Staffan Dahllöf

Staffan Dahllöf is a freelance reporter based in Copenhagen, specialised in FOI.

Staffan Dahllöf

Paula Fray

Paula Fray is an African feminist storyteller.

Paula Fray
€9.700, allocated on 23/05/2023

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