The aim: to reduce levels of plant protection products in the water.

The promotion of the sustainable use of plant protection products with a minimum impact on water forms one of the research projects being conducted by the RMA (Environmental Modelling) unit within VITO. As part of this task, VITO also performs the role of coordinator in the EU research and innovation project WaterProtect. This project focuses on developing new methods of agriculture together with crop farmers, as it is they who contribute towards better water quality in areas where it is at significant risk from the application of fertilisers and the use of plant protection products.

Sustainable use of plant protection products

Ingeborg Joris is a researcher at RMA, in which a team of 50 researchers work on exploring and predicting the development of the environmental resources of air, water, energy and land – resources that have become scarce. “In RMA, the Cropsys® team focuses on the sustainable use of plant protection products,” explains Joris. “We develop tools and provide advice with the aim of limiting the impact of plant protection products on the environment. We conduct thorough research to provide the basis for this: we monitor concentrations of plant protection products in surface water, the soil and groundwater, we perform spatial analyses, and we map out risk areas.”

Concern for the living environment

“We are also aiming to create environmental stewardship in close collaboration with producers and agricultural advisory centres,” continues Joris. “We examine how plant protection products enter the water and we also calculate what concentrations we can expect to find in particular locations. These data are combined with monitoring activities, which enables us to map out the major water routes. Once you combine all of this, you will know what measures are most effective in order to achieve the maximum impact on water quality. Our WaterProtect tools help us to provide our clients with information that they can access easily.”

Focus on drinking water

The aim of the EU research and innovation project WaterProtect is to improve protection for drinking water sources. “We are running campaigns in seven action labs across Europe in vulnerable areas where water sources are at risk due to the application of fertilisers and the use of plant protection products,” says Joris. “In Flanders, VITO is working on this project in collaboration with ILVO and Inagro. We have already succeeded in raising awareness among many parties, and some progress has been made in water quality over the last few years, but there are still always problem areas. We also hope to increase the involvement of all affected parties, be they authorities, crop farmers, companies or the general population.”


“Every participating country has its own action area,” Joris continues. “The one in Flanders is the Bollaertbeek catchment area in Zillebeke. Bollaertbeek was chosen because the levels of plant protection products found there exceed the standards. De Watergroep abstracts drinking water in Zillebeke from the Verdronken Weiden area that the Bollaertbeek drains into. It is a fairly small catchment area, which limits the number of crop farmers concerned, specifically 167. The catchment area is primarily used for agriculture. The MAP [referring to the fertilisers action plan, or Mestactieplan laid down by decree in Flanders] measuring points are green, enabling us to concentrate only on plant protection products.”

Multi-actor approach

“The involvement of local actors is very important to us. They all have different knowledge and priorities, whether they are researchers, crop farmers, business owners, authorities or private individuals, and it is important to map out all of this information. I am also convinced that it is exactly this type of collaboration that increases engagement, and therefore also has a positive effect on the outcome. Inagro, for example, can use the tools developed as part of WaterProtect to approach crop farmers to explain the issues that exist in the area. What is more, it allows us to explain more effectively why we recommend a particular measure. And there is, of course, scope for parties to have their say. We ensure that everyone has the opportunity to contribute to the discussion.”

Achievable aims

We work proactively with crop farmers and other parties, and this enables us to check regularly what effective measures they consider acceptable. “We want to create a partnership, rather than creating the impression that we are targeting crop farmers in a particular area,” Joris stresses. “It is precisely for that reason that we are working together with them to examine what they consider feasible to improve water quality.”

Sharing knowledge with affected parties

The first two meetings with affected crop farmers have already taken place. At the first meeting, it was striking that many were unaware that both De Watergroep and the Flanders Environment Agency (VMM) regularly take readings in the area. VMM takes samples in order to check whether the surface water contains plant protection products, for the purpose of protecting the local flora and fauna. “Most crop farmers are aware of the nitrate issue, but not the issue concerning plant protection products,” explains Joris. “They were under the impression that De Watergroep, which supplies drinking water and is responsible for drinking water quality, takes readings every week, and sometimes has to stop the use of water because the treatment costs become excessive. Naturally, their interest increases when we mention plant protection products that are put under pressure because their presence is being measured in the surface water. With WaterProtect, we want to ensure that crop farmers are not only aware of the issues in their catchment area, but also have easy access to the information about their own area.” 

Interaction with crop farmers

“At the second meeting in February, we looked at what measures were and were not deemed feasible by crop farmers,” continues Joris. “Cleaning and rinsing the tractor nozzles in the field, for example, is a very efficient measure that costs crop farmers neither time nor money. We are reconsidering other measures for reasons of efficiency. We are also examining whether additional financial resources can be made available to enable a number of individual measures to be continued.”

A useful tool

"At present, VITO is continuing its work to develop a tool that makes the measurement results easily accessible using a computer and tablet. This will also be followed later by a smartphone application. This will enable crop farmers to monitor the concentration of plant protection products in the water at each measurement site. High-quality drinking water is in everyone’s interests.”

Horizon 2020

The Bollaertbeek project is being co-financed by the European Commission’s ‘Horizon 2020 research and development programme’. In addition to the action lab in Bollaertbeek in Belgium, action labs have also been set up in County Wexford (Ireland), Llobregat (Spain), Jebjerg (Denmark), Gowienica (Poland), Val Tidone (Italy) and Maramureș (Romania). Although the agriculture and local challenges of each action lab vary, all seven of them are tackling the contamination of drinking water supplies by nutrients and/or pesticides. The WaterProtect reporting tool that has been developed by VITO will also be used in the Italian, Irish and Romanian action labs to map out water quality more effectively and to help to improve it.


The project will run for three years. Afterwards, the results and findings obtained will be used to provide detailed recommendations at European and national policy-level. Other relevant parties will also be provided with detailed information. A supervisory group also exists at European level, which includes Copa-Cogeca (the association of the European Union’s two largest agricultural umbrella organisations, ed.) and producers of fertilisers, plant protection products, and drinking water. By involving all parties, we ensure that as many people and companies as possible hold a stake in clean water.”


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Further information about Horizon 2020 can be found at:

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