Defra unveils package of measures amid soaring fertiliser prices

George Eustice has announced that changes to the use of urea fertiliser will be delayed by at least a year
George Eustice has announced that changes to the use of urea fertiliser will be delayed by at least a year

The government has announced a series of measures to assist farmers with the availability of fertilisers for the coming growing season amid unprecedented costs and tightening supplies.

Defra has today (30 March) made announcements on key issues affecting farmers, particularly the rising cost and dwindling availability of fertiliser - a consequence of the Ukraine war.

Changes to the use of urea fertiliser will be delayed by at least a year, the department confirmed, to help farmers manage costs and give them more time to adapt.

In its consultation on reducing ammonia pollution, the government had previously described a ban on solid urea fertilisers as its preferred option.

But today’s announcement states that urea fertiliser will not be banned at this point, instead new measures will be introduced to limit pollution from urea fertiliser.

Farmers will be allowed to continue to use urea within an accreditation scheme, audited by Red Tractor.

Guidance on Farming Rules for Water has also been revised to allow autumn manure spreading, and new slurry storage grants will be made available this year.

Defra said it will publish statutory guidance to clarify how the Environment Agency should apply the rules when it comes to spreading of organic manures in autumn and winter.

Farmers and growers had raised significant concerns for some time about how the regulations were being interpreted.

Announcing the measures, Defra Secretary George Eustice said that while they were "not the whole solution", they would help farmers "manage their nitrogen needs in the year ahead".

"The significant rise in the cost of fertiliser is a reminder that we need to reduce our dependence on manufacturing processes dependent on gas," he added.

“Many of the challenges we face in agriculture will require a fusion of new technology with conventional principles of good farm husbandry."

The government has also published further details of the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) today.

Given current fertiliser prices, the SFI's priority must be to "pioneer new technologies" to manufacture more organic-based fertiliser products.

Defra said the industry must also "rediscover techniques", such as using nitrogen fixing legumes and clovers as an alternative to fertiliser.

Another measure is that the newly established fertiliser roundtable will soon be launched, which will look at the impact of reduced supply of fertiliser and seek alternatives.

The industry roundtable will be chaired by the Defra farming minister Victoria Prentis and will meet for the first time on Thursday 1 April.

NFU President Minette Batters said that many of the measures were 'positive' for farmers: "This is what the NFU has been asking for and I’d like to thank government for making these changes.

“We will look at the guidance closely and we are continuing to engage with government on the importance of fertiliser and about ways it can ensure stability and confidence in the food supply chain.”

Responding to the new guidance for Farming Rules for Water, NFU Deputy President Tom Bradshaw said it would provide 'much needed clarity' for the industry.

“Over the past year the NFU has played an important role bringing together the industry, Environment Agency and Defra to agree that organic manures can be spread in the autumn, so crops are receiving the vital nutrients they require.

"This new guidance will enable farm businesses to plan with confidence and importantly, drive improvements that benefit soil and plant health as well as water quality.”

Defra also announced that there would be a farming industry self-regulation approach to the use of solid urea fertilisers, a move welcomed by the NFU.

Mr Bradshaw said: “We put forward a strong case to Defra for a robust and pragmatic industry-led approach, without which would have meant a ban on the use of solid urea fertilisers.

“We are pleased that Defra has agreed to our calls for a delay to the roll-out by a year until 2023 due to current market conditions.

“Today’s announcement means farmers can keep using a vital product, to help grow sustainable climate-friendly food, while at the same time significantly cutting ammonia emissions.”