By Ben Simmons

OECD governments have made little overall progress in reducing water contamination from farming over the past decade, says a new report.

Not only are pollutant levels high in many areas but sources of contamination are often spread widely across the landscape, making measurement and control difficult.

Tackling agricultural water pollution across OECD countries costs taxpayers billions of dollars annually. In addition to the expense of removing pollutants from drinking water and of paying farmers, for example, to help them store manure safely or create contamination buffers, there are wider costs to society and to the environment of contaminating rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

The rise in commodity prices over recent years — a trend forecast by the OECD and the Food and Agriculture Organisation to continue over the coming decade — has encouraged more intensive production, so increasing the risk of water pollution.

The OECD’s Water Quality and Agriculture: Meeting the Policy Challenge adds that even where low-pollution management systems have been adopted, there is sometimes a considerable time lag before water quality improves.

But the report says the scale of the damage caused to water by agriculture needs to be placed in perspective. For most OECD countries drinking water quality is high. Farming, although often the major source of pollution, is not the only culprit.

The key challenge for policy makers is to reduce farm contaminants - nutrients, pesticides, soil sediments, and veterinary products - which are lost into water systems, while encouraging higher water quality for recreational and other uses.

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