Industrial agriculture has grown in Germany, increasing nitrate and methane pollutionA lawsuit targets nitrate and methane pollution from industrial agriculture in Germany. Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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By Ucilia Wang

A new lawsuit in Germany could provide lessons for cutting emissions from agriculture, which has largely escaped air quality regulations or climate lawsuits in the United States despite its large greenhouse gas footprint.

Environmental Action Germany, an advocacy group that filed the lawsuit last month, is taking on the German government for failing to lower the amount of nitrates seeping into the surface and groundwater, mostly from large-scale farming operations.

While the lawsuit aims to force the government to tighten its nitrate regulations, it comes with a larger goal to limit factory farming, said Remo Klinger, an attorney at Geulen & Klinger, which is representing Environmental Action Germany in the case. This would in turn combat climate change because those large agricultural operations emit large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

“A reduction in animals is one of the main elements of reducing nitrates,” said Klinger, who noted that farmers, as in the U.S., wield tremendous political influence in Germany. “The high number of animals is linked to climate change because of their methane emissions.”

Nitrate pollution has a direct link to methane emissions. High nitrate levels in ground and surface water typically comes from excessive use of fertilizers and poor management of animal manure, especially at giant, industrialized farms that raise hundreds or thousands of animals in a confined space and require giant holding ponds to store the manure.

Dairy and cattle farms in particular are a rich source of methane. Animals burp methane while digesting food, and their manure also releases methane as it decomposes. Methane excels at trapping heat and accelerates global warming more quickly than carbon dioxide. In the U.S., raising livestock is the largest source of methane emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Worldwide, agriculture is estimated to produce 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.

Environmental Action Germany wants to tackle the problem by forcing the government to lower nitrate levels by placing a lower cap on the amount of manure that each farm can accommodate per hectare of land each year, Klinger said. Shrinking these farms would lower their methane emissions.

Germany’s level of nitrate pollution is the second highest in the European Union, trailing only Malta. A government study in 2016 showed that 28 percent of the nitrate monitoring stations showed nitrate levels in groundwater exceeding the EU limit of 50 milligrams per liter.

The European Commission sued Germany in 2016 over the high nitrate levels and won a ruling from the European Court of Justice in June. Germany, which amended its nitrate regulations in 2017, said its new rules now help it comply with the EU limit. But critics, such as Environmental Action Germany, said loopholes in the new regulations make them ineffective.

The U.S. is also lax when it comes to minimizing the environmental impacts of industrial farms, said Jonathan Lovvorn, chief counsel of the Humane Society of the United States and a lecturer at Harvard Law School. Only farms that reach a certain size are subject to the federal Clean Water Act, and they mostly escape oversight under the Clean Air Act.

While plenty of lawsuits have been filed against farms over air and water quality, they have largely been unsuccessful historically, Lovvorn said.

A few recent victories include a $473.5 million judgment against a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods last week. The company lost a federal nuisance lawsuit in which the neighbors of its three giant hog farms in North Carolina said they couldn’t stand the stench and flies from open pits of animal waste or the rumbling of company trucks that pick up hogs for slaughter in the middle of the night.   

Few suits have attempted to challenge these farms’ methane emissions and climate impacts.

“Agricultural emissions are completely unaddressed by federal statutes,” Lovvorn said. “It’s a ticking time bomb for the animal agricultural industry. Sooner or later they will be called into reckoning for the fact that they put a substantial amount of emissions into the atmosphere.”

Lovvorn says the ongoing lawsuits filed by cities in the U.S. against fossil fuel companies could also offer lessons for battling large agriculture companies’ climate footprint.

“My suspicion is people are watching the cities’ climate cases in the energy sector closely and likely thinking about to what extent any favorable rulings could provide a footing to do something about agricultural climate emissions,” he said.

As is the case in Germany, the agriculture industry holds a lot of political clout, making it difficult to pass regulations to change farming practices. That influence stems from an idealized view of farmers as wholesome, self-reliant owners of small plots, even though family-owned farms are disappearing and giving way to industrialized farms, Lovvorn said.

California, the largest dairy-producing state in the country, was the first state to create programs to cut methane emissions from farms, part of its larger effort to address climate change. Last year, New York announced a methane reduction plan that require state agencies to evaluate and develop programs to cut methane in agriculture.

California’s program provides money to buy digesters that convert methane into biogas. It also supports a smaller program that finances better manure management practices at industrial farms, from changing how manure is collected and processed to taking animals out of confinement and letting them roam in a pasture.

These two programs are voluntary because the state won’t start regulating methane emissions from dairy and other livestock farms until 2024. The state aims to reduce methane emissions by 40 percent below 2013 levels by 2030.

The larger focus on promoting digesters has its critics. Tara Ritter, senior program associate for climate and rural communities at the Institute for Minnesota-based Agricultural Trade and Policy, said the effort would still allow factory farms to operate and doesn’t adequately address the water and air quality problems that come from raising so many animals in a confined space.

“California is trying to be a leader on climate change, yet it just slaps a lot of digesters on farms,” Ritter said.