40% of Catalonia's surface area polluted by slurry

Greenpeace calls for a reduction in intensive livestock farming to curb the spread of nitrates in groundwater

3 min
A pig farm in an archive image

BarcelonaMore than 25,500 livestock farms and 62.5 million head of cattle. With this census, Catalonia is one of the driving forces of the livestock sector in Spain, with a predominance of the intensive model of large farms over extensive farms (with lower livestock density). The downside of this activity is that it has in turn placed the country as one of the territories of the State with the most contaminated groundwater by nitrates associated with slurry: 40% of the area is already affected within what are called nitrate vulnerable zones. To reverse the situation, and dodge a possible EU record, the Generalitat issued a moratorium three years ago limiting the growth of farms in more than 60 municipalities, a measure that has now been extended for four years. However, for the moment, the results have not helped to make the pollution go away, according to Greenpeace in a report published on Thursday. Nitrate vulnerable areas have grown by 200,000 hectares in the last decade and pollution has shot up 45% between 2016 and 2019.

The moratorium on the expansion of pig farms in a large part of the country, which has been extended for four more years by the Catalan ministry of climate action, and the limit of 600 cows for new livestock farms, which has just been announced by the Catalan minister Teresa Jordà, are "insufficient" to alleviate the problem, according to the environmental NGO. The problem is not the livestock farming but the model, it says, and for this reason it proposes extending the moratorium to the whole country and "start to drastically reduce the number of animals in intensive farming".

Catalonia is patient zero of the report ("the example that should not be followed", says Greenpeace), but other regions are on the same path and, moreover, have much faster growth curves of farms. This is the case in Aragón, which in the last five years has reached 8.5 million pigs and is already the first community in pig herd, ahead of the 8.1 million with which Catalonia led the ranking. In fact, Aragón and Castilla y León are the territories where the pig and cattle herd has grown the most, respectively, in the last ten years and, consequently, where the area affected by nitrates has increased the most. Even so, the Valencian Country and Castilla-La Mancha are, together with Catalonia, the most contaminated territories for now.

A pig farm in Vilanova de Bellpuig, Pla d'Urgell

In the whole state, however, nitrate pollution soared by 50% in just four years (between 2016 and 2019) and a quarter of the territory is already marked as a vulnerable area. It is the case that Murcia reached the highest peaks in 2019, in this case as a result of another major source of pollution, fertilisers from intensive agriculture, in the area close to the Mar Menor lagoon.

The report criticises that, while the problem grows and Brussels has already warned of the "systemic problem" that Spain has, governments do not stop authorisations to expand intensive farms. In Catalonia, the rate of authorisations has remained constant over the past six years, a figure that could not be compared with that of other autonomous communities because it has been impossible to obtain, Greenpeace acknowledges. In fact, unlike most communities, the information of the Generalitat allows to know that the intensive model is the one that prevails in 100% of poultry farming, 99% of pig farms, 78% of cattle, 43% of goats and 34% of sheep, which is where the extensive model is more present.

The consequences of an industrial livestock model also aggravate the climate crisis. Catalonia emits almost 30% of all greenhouse gases attributable to livestock in Spain, which the report estimates globally at more than 69 million tons of CO2, with data from 2019. Therefore, the NGO proposes not only a reduction of intensive livestock in the next decade but also the creation of a tax at source on emissions from the sector, following the principle of "polluter pays".