Agricultural nitrates

Agricultural nitrates

Outline of the Community (European Union) legislation about Agricultural nitrates


These categories group together and put in context the legislative and non-legislative initiatives which deal with the same topic.

Agriculture > Environment

Agricultural nitrates

Document or Iniciative

Council Directive 91/676/EEC of 12 December 1991 concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources [See amending act(s)].


Directive 91/676/EEC (henceforth referred to as the Nitrates Directive aims to protect waters in Europe by preventing nitrates from agricultural sources from polluting groundwater and surface waters by encouraging the use of good agricultural practices.

The Nitrates Directive is an integral part of the Water Framework Directive and is one of the key instruments for protecting water against agricultural pressures.

The implementation of the Directive will be carried out in a number of stages. Member States shall:

  • identify surface water and groundwater affected by pollution or at risk of being so, based on procedures and criteria detailed in the Directive (specifically when the concentration of nitrates in groundwater or surface water reaches 50 mg/l or when the surface water is eutrophic or is at risk of being so);
  • designate vulnerable zones, which are all known areas of land in their territories which drain into surface waters and groundwater which are affected by pollution or at risk of being so. The Nitrates Directive provides a possibility for Member States to be exempted from the requirement to designate vulnerable zones if the action programmes are applied to the whole of their national territory;
  • establish a code of good agricultural practice to be implemented by farmers on a voluntary basis, which shall include the measures detailed in Annex II to the Directive;
  • set up compulsory action programmes to be implemented by all farmers who work in vulnerable zones. These programmes must contain the measures listed in the good agricultural practice codes, as well as the additional measures listed in Annex III to the Directive, which aim to limit the land application of mineral and organic fertilisers containing nitrogen, as well as land application of livestock manure.

The Directive authorises Member States to take additional measures or to reinforce their action programmes in order to achieve the objectives of the Directive.

Member States must monitor water quality, applying standardised reference methods to measure the nitrogen-compound content.

The Commission has provided Member States with recommendations on monitoring methods and on the information which must be included in their reports on the application of this Directive. These reports shall be submitted by Member States to the Commission every four years.


Water pollution by nitrates has been made worse by the introduction of intensive farming methods, with increased use of chemical fertilisers and higher concentrations of animals in smaller areas.

Nitrate pollution is causing problems in all Member States. The sources of nitrate pollution are diffuse (multiple discharges which are difficult to locate).

The 1980s saw a progressive worsening of water quality owing to the growth of intensive livestock farming (chickens, pigs) in areas that were already saturated, and of intensive crop-growing involving the use of chemical weedkillers and overfertilisation.

The 1988 Frankfurt Ministerial Conference examined water protection legislation. The participants stressed that the legislation needed improving, and this resulted in the adoption of the Directive on Urban Waste Water and the Nitrates Directive.


Act Entry into force Deadline for transposition in the Member States Official Journal
Directive 91/676/EEC



OJ L 375 of 31.12.1991


The Nitrates Directive provides the possibility for an exemption from the rule on the maximum quantity of 170 kg of nitrates per hectare and per year allowed for land application of livestock manure, on the condition that it can be established that the objectives of the Directive are still met and that the exemption is based on objectives criteria such as long growing seasons, crops with high nitrogen uptake, high net precipitation or soils with high denitrification capacity. The Commission shall decide whether to grant an exemption or not, based on advice provided by the Nitrates Committee who assists the Commission in the implementation of the Directive. The prerequisites for any exemption are the appropriate designation of nitrate vulnerable zones and action programmes which fully comply with the Directive. Furthermore, the exemption is only valid for the duration of the action programme.

List of exemptions granted:

Decision 2005/880/EC [Official Journal L 324 of 10.12.2005]
Extension of validity by:
Decision 2010/65/EU [Official Journal L 35 of 6.2.2010].
This exemption has been granted to the Netherlands until 31 December 2013.

Decision 2006/1013/EC [Official Journal L 382 of 28.12.2006]
Extension of validity by:
Decision 2009/753/EC [Official Journal L 268 of 13.10.2009].
This exemption has been granted to Germany until 31 December 2013.

Decision 2007/697/EC [Official Journal L 284 of 30.10.2007].

Extension of validity by:
Decision 2011/127/EU [Official Journal L 51 of 25.2.2011].
This exemption has been granted to Ireland. It is applicable until 31 December 2013.

Decision 2007/863/EC [Official Journal L 337 of 21.12.2007].

Extension of validity by:
Decision 2011/128/EU [Official Journal L 51 of 25.2.2011].

This exemption has been granted to the United Kingdom for Northern Ireland. It is applicable until 31 December 2014.

Decision 2008/64/EC [Official Journal L 16 of 19.1.2008].

Extension of validity by:
Decision 2011/489/EU [Official Journal L 200 of 3.8.2011].
This exemption has been granted to Belgium for Flanders. It is applicable until 31 December 2014.

Commission implementing Decision 2011/721/EU [Official Journal L 287 of 4.11.2011].

This exemption has been granted to Italy for the regions of Emilia Romagna, Lombardia, Piemonte and Veneto. It is applicable until 31 December 2015.

Amending act(s) Entry into force Deadline for transposition in the Member States Official Journal
Regulation (EC) No 1882/2003


OJ L 284 of 31.10.2003

Regulation (EC) No 1137/2008


OJ L 311 of 21.11.2008

The successive amendments and corrigenda to Directive 91/676/EEC have been incorporated into the original text. This consolidated versionis for reference only.

Related Acts

Report from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on implementation of Council Directive 91/676/EEC concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources based on Member State reports for the period 2004 – 2007 [COM(2010) 47 final – Not published in the Official Journal].
This Report is based on the information provided by the 27 Member States. 66 % of the groundwater quality monitoring stations showed stable or decreasing nitrate concentrations. However, 15 % of stations showed nitrate concentrations above the quality threshold of 50 mg per litre. The highest concentration of nitrates lies between 5 and 15 metres below the surface.
The quality of action programmes further improved as compared with the last reporting period in the EU 15. All new Member States established action programmes. In order to attain full compliance with the requirements of the Nitrates Directive, improvements are required, particularly with regards to storage construction, balanced fertilisation and establishment of periods during which land application is banned. In order to improve the implementation of programmes, better information for farmers and the application of efficient control programmes are essential.

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