View of open air discarded pesticide cans that are polluting the environment, soil and water nearby in Yeliman, Mali. The very high temperatures in the area cause emission of poisonous gases.
Photo: © FAO/Ivo Balderi

23.07.2018

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Water pollution from unsustainable agricultural practices poses a serious risk to human health and the planet's ecosystems, a problem often underestimated by policy-makers and farmers, the FAO and the IWMI state in a new report.

In many countries, the biggest source of water pollution today is agriculture, not cities or industry, while world-wide, the most common chemical contaminant found in groundwater aquifers is nitrate from farming, according to More People, More Food, Worse Water? A Global Review of Water Pollution from Agriculture. This new report was launched by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) at a conference in Tajikistan in June 2018.

Modern agriculture is responsible for the discharge of large quantities of agrochemicals, organic matter, sediments and saline trading into water bodies, the report says.

The agro-pollutants of greatest concern for human health are pathogens from livestock, pesticides, nitrates in groundwater, trace metallic elements and emerging pollutants, including antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant genes excreted by livestock.

How agriculture affects water quality

The boom in global agricultural productivity that followed the Second World War was achieved largely through the intensive use of inputs such as pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

Since 1960 the use of mineral fertiliser has grown tenfold, while since 1970, global sales of pesticides climbed from around USD one billion to USD 35 billion a year.

Meanwhile, the intensification of livestock production — world livestock numbers have more than tripled since 1970 — has seen a new class of pollutants emerge: antibiotics, vaccines and hormonal growth promoters that travel from farms through water into ecosystems and our drinking water.

At the same time, water pollution by organic matter from livestock farming is now significantly more widespread than organic pollution from urban areas.

And another booming sector, aquaculture (which has expanded twenty-fold since 1980) is now releasing ever greater amounts of fish excreta, uneaten feed, antibiotics, fungicides and anti-fouling agents into surface waters.

What can be done

The most effective way to mitigate pressure on aquatic ecosystems and rural ecologies is to limit the export of pollutants at the source or to intercept them before they reach vulnerable ecosystems.

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