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Defra announces plans to support farmers with fertiliser costs & reward nature-friendly practice

Defra has reinforced its plans to reward nature-friendly farming in England and has announced five actions they will take to support farms with the availability of nutrients for the coming growing season. This comes in response to the rising costs of fertiliser, fuel and animal feed.

In the announcement, Defra outlined five areas for assisting farmers:

  • Farming Rules for Water: Clarification on what manure spreading and use of fertilisers is allowed
  • Changes to urea usage: A delay in actions to reduce ammonia emissions by 12 months to April 2023 and the introduction of two new Red Tractor standards
  • An Industry Fertiliser roundtable: Holding a roundtable to look at current issues faced by the fertiliser industry and its impact on farmers
  • Sustainable Farming Incentive: New information to prepare farmers for a new income stream, including for the Annual Health and Welfare Review
  • Farming Innovation Programme: Opening application for two “climate-smart farming” projects

There is much to welcome within these measures, including new guidance on how farmers should limit the use of slurry and other farmyard manure at certain times of the year and the introduction of new slurry storage grants later this year.

However, Defra has permitted the continued use of urea within voluntary standards audited by Red Tractor to allow farmers time to manage rising costs. This decision to administer urea through an accreditation scheme is disappointing as it overlooks many other farmers who are not Red Tractor members. As we have seen in the past, previous voluntary measures reap little environmental return in the long term and Defra has said regulation will be introduced if the scheme does not achieve the ammonia reductions needed.

Ammonia emissions

In 2020, the sector’s annual ammonia emissions across the UK were 259.2 thousand tonnes, showing only a 7 per cent reduction since 2005. Poor advice means that most farmers waste 40% of the fertiliser they apply to their fields. This causes runoff that contributes to air and water quality issues and damages ecosystems.

Should fertiliser prices remain exceptionally high, the Government will need to consider diverse and ambitious ways of supporting farmers in using fewer fertilisers, with much better access to means of applying fertiliser precisely.

As climate change advances, making the sector’s supply of global inputs even more uncertain, dependency on imported fertilisers is unlikely to improve without rapid, targeted action and collaboration. We hope to see a wider selection of farming organisations be invited to the newly launched Industry Fertiliser roundtable, including the Nature Friendly Farming Network, so that options for reducing reliance on inputs can be fairly assessed.

We are pleased to see support for the development of organic-based fertilisers in the announcement on grant payments for farmers in the Sustainable Farming Incentive. This includes covering the costs of sowing nitrogen-fixing cover crops, like clover and legumes, and utilising green manures from livestock to recycle nutrients.

Food security

Recently, we shared our response to growing concerns around food insecurity and signed Sustain’s open letter to Defra calling on measures to ensure a sustainable food and farming system.

“Farmers are constrained by soaring input prices and we recognise that the Government’s announcements will ease immediate concerns. But delaying actions to reduce ammonia emissions will do little to lessen the sector’s reliance on expensive, largely harmful and increasingly inaccessible inputs. It’s vital that we prioritise a move towards nature-friendly practices across the whole farm landscape, supported through farmer-to-farmer learning and funding for farmer-led research. The more we accelerate on-farm action to replace artificial inputs and sustain ecosystem function through cover cropping or rotational grazing, the more secure our farming systems will be in the long term.”

“Maintaining stability and UK farming’s capacity to produce food in the long term requires systemic planning on how we reduce reliance on costly inputs. We need to continue building the sector’s confidence in using nature-friendly practices so that we build a resilient landscape and improve farm business profitability.”

– Martin Lines, NFFN UK Chair