Farm groups have broadly welcomed a package of measures from the Government to help with high fertiliser costs but are warning more action is likely to be needed over the coming months.
The policy announcements from Defra came as analysis from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit suggested farmers could be paying an extra £760 million for fertiliser over the next year, assuming prices stay as high as they currently are.
The plans include reversing a proposed ban on urea in England, with a new Red Tractor (RT) standard allowing the use of untreated or unprotected urea fertilisers between January 15 and March 31, and treated or protected urea fertilisers throughout the rest of the year.
This measure will be implemented in April 2023.
Policing body However, some farmers have voiced concerns that RT could become Defra’s policing body, making the assurance scheme ‘more compulsory than voluntary.
Staffordshire farmer Clive Bailye points to what he sees as the ‘dangerous levels of control’ RT, a private company, will have over another business, while East Yorkshire grower Stephen Ridsdale highlights that the new standard will only apply to English RT farmers, not their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts.
“It is really unfair that to pass RT accreditation, English farmers are going to be disadvantaged,” he says.
NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw points out that the scheme is far preferable to the planned ban on uea.
He says: “Maintaining access to urea fertiliser benefits every farmer in the country that is using nitrogen fertiliser.
Not only does it give choice to utilise the benefits of untreated urea early in the season, but it also critically, provides price transparency to the marketplace.
“To maintain access to this product, Defra wanted to see an auditable industry approach.
Given that RT covers approximaely 95% of those farmers utilisng urea fertiliser, this was the only way to avoid an outright ban.
“Farmers looking to undermine this risk losing urea for the whole of the industry.”
A Defra spokesman said decisions around RT assurance were ‘a matter for farmers themselves’.
‘Unaffected’ Non-RT members will be ‘unaffected’ by the new standard and will be able to use untreated urea during the restricted period Defra also announced that new slurry storage grants will be offered this year to help farmers store organic nutrients and reduce dependence on artificial fertilisers.
And a new industry fertiliser roundtable, chaired by Farming Minister Victoria Prentis, met for the first time on March 31.
An update on that meeting was awaited as Arable Farming went to press.
CLA president Mark Tufnell says he is pleased to see Defra taking action but pointed to the massive challenges ahead for UK food production.
He says: “If prices continue to stay at this all-time high, Government will need to urgently consider ways of increasing and diversifying domestic fertiliser production.
We hope this will be a central focus of the roundtable Defra has rightly called.”
And providing further details on its Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) policy, Defra announced that the first component of the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, the SFI, will reward farmers for sowing nitrogen-fixing plants and green manures to substitute fertiliser requirements.
The Government also issued new guidance clarifying the Environment Agency’s (EA) role in policing the Farming Rules for Water.
The new document sets out ‘criteria’ for the EA to follow when applying the directive and was announced by Defra Secretary George Eustice.
Imposing sanctions The EA makes it clear the guidance ‘does not amend’ the rules, which were introduced in 2018 to reduce and prevent agriculture polluting water sources, but the document does highlight various factors the EA should consider before taking further action or imposing sanctions.
It refers in particular to the use of organic manure and manufactured fertiliser to agricultural land stating that, ‘enforcement action should not normally be taken where land managers have met the criteria’ and can demonstrate they have ‘planned applications of organic manure or inorganic fertiliser’ such as a nutrient management plan.
It also suggests farmers look closely at which crops or soils need fertiliser and to avoid using those that raise the soil P index and to avoid ‘significant risk of agricultural diffuse pollution due to nitrate leaching’