A huge quantity of gypsum could save the Archipelago Sea

Driving a three-kilometre queue of trucks full of gypsum to dump it on fields in south-western Finland could be the best thing that has happened to the Baltic Sea for a century.

Fields in Lieto in south-western Finland are the site for a social experiment combining science, agriculture, environmental subsidies, policy and Baltic Sea protection. Walking through the freshly ploughed field in November, it doesn’t exactly look like a governmental key project.

According to Markku Ollikainen, professor of environmental economics, granting funding to the SAVE project is the most effective thing we can do to combat the nutrient loading originating from agriculture which ispolluting the Archipelago Sea and the Baltic Sea in general.

 “In Finland we have buffer zones between the shores and the fields, and we have restrictions on the use of fertilisers and pesticides. Nevertheless, agricultural nitrogen emissions in particular have increased,” lists a concerned Ollikainen at his office in Viikki, Helsinki.

Turning results into social solutions

For Ollikainen, SAVE becoming a governmental key project means cooperation with politicians, researchers, farmers and, for example, logistics companies, and represents a commitment to turn research results into genuine social solutions.

For Ollikainen, this can be done by integrating the gypsum treatment into the Finnish agri-environmental scheme. This would mean that a farmer in coastal southern Finland would receive a subsidy for spreading gypsum on fields during the autumn work. Researchers estimate that the treatment should be repeated at five-year intervals.

 “We believe that gypsum is a cost-effective way of cutting down phosphorus loading, which is the biggest burden on the Archipelago Sea, by a third. We could transfer funds from less effective methods, meaning that we would not even have to increase the annual sum of €200 million currently spent on agricultural subsidies.”

Pure gypsum applicable for use on the fields has been transported across Finland with trucks to the fields of 55 farmers in Lieto and Paimio from the Siilinjärvi factory of Yara Finland, a fertiliser manufacturer.

If everything goes according to the researchers’ plan, the trucks will later be replaced by trains. They also hope that the method will also work on fields in Sweden and, more importantly, Poland. Then the impact would be a significant improvement in the Baltic Sea at large, not just the Archipelago Sea. But before then, there are still many things to research.

 “Visibility increased by a third at least”

The project is at an important crossroads now that the gypsum is in the ground. Researchers can now measure the results, what happens in the field, in the water and in the biotic environment.

“And what happens when a crowd of researchers start interfering with the life of a farmer,” Ollikainen quips.

This is because bothering farmers is how the search for the fields and farmers needed for the research began. Elisa Punttila, project coordinator for SAVE, has a long list of factors that were essential to the project.

 “At first we of course sent out letters, made phone calls and answered calls. We organised events, gave interviews in local newspapers, visited farms and even gave a presentation on the project at the municipal council.

One of the most important missions of the pilot project was to reveal the risks that might later appear somewhere else when applying gypsum.

The implementation of the pilot has been modified along the way. For example, it had not occurred to the researchers that some of the private roads leading to the fields are practically impassable with a truck loaded full of gypsum. Ollikainen primarily credits the farmers for pointing this out.

 “We’ve been able to solve these issues through excellent cooperation. In addition to the quality of the soil and the water, we are now also evaluating the wellbeing of thick-shelled river musselsand trout as well as the quality of dwell water, all at the suggestion of the farmers and our other partners.”

Even though the kind of subsidy system Ollikainen is aiming for is not yet in sight, the project has already gone far. Punttila realised how successful the project was when she visited the research area three weeks after the gypsum had been spread on the fields and looked down from a bridge.

 “It was the first time I could see our measuring instruments at the bottom of the river. The visibility had increased by a third at least. We all marvelled at how clear the water in the river had become!”

What is SAVE?

SAVE (Saving the Archipelago Sea by applying gypsum to agricultural fields) is a joint project of the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Environment Institute intended to determine whether gypsum can be used to improve the state of the Archipelago Sea and the Baltic Sea.

Based on current knowledge, gypsum seems to be the best solution for keeping phosphorus on the fields and out of waterways, where it causes eutrophication.

Gypsum cannot help lakes, however, as the sulphate in gypsum may speed up the release of phosphorus from lake bottoms.

Seawater is naturally so rich in sulphates that even extensive use of gypsum will not have any impact on the chemistry of the seas.

SAVE is part of the key project of Juha Sipilä’s Government to promote a circular economy. It is funded by the Ministry of the Environment and the EU Central Baltic programme through the NutriTrade project.

SAVE will run for three years, 2016–2018.