The new Farming Rules for Water, introduced by Defra and the Environment Agency in 2018, were designed to protect watercourses from being polluted from inappropriate and / or excessive use of organic waste (digestate) generated by biogas production. Under Rule 1, farmers were instructed not to apply any more digestate than was actually needed for the crops or that the soil could absorb.
However, earlier this year, the Environment Agency extended the rules to include the spreading of all organic fertiliser including manure, slurry and biosolids and with a start date of this autumn (2021). This gave farmers little or no time to plan for the revised quantities they would have had to spread on their land, or for the disposal or storage of any excess organic fertiliser.
Autumn start date delayed to February 2022
In August, the EA had a change of heart and, accepting that farmers need longer to plan for the future management of their organic fertiliser excess, they granted a stay of execution until the end of February 2022, meaning that farmers can spread more fertiliser this autumn than the land or crops actually need, providing it does not pose a pollution threat. However, as the NFU and various other interested bodies have pointed out, this raises bigger questions about overall soil management and the best time of year to spread organic fertiliser, as well as the affordability of building additional storage facilities for the manure / slurry that cannot be used.
Long term consequences for livestock farmers
No one is arguing that watercourses or water sources should be compromised by inappropriate muck spreading and the EA rules on where and when muck can be spread are clear. However, where land can stand the addition of extra muck (i.e. land at low risk of leaching or run-off), it will help to improve soil structure, enhance soil nutrition and reduce the need for additional, synthetic inputs. Autumn is generally seen as the best time for spreading organic waste as it produces less ammonia and phosphate emissions than doing the same in the spring.
In order to comply with the new organic waste application requirements, livestock farmers have warned that they may either have to reduce the number of animals or build additional storage facilities, both of which come with a significant price tag. As well has having to apply for planning permission for extra storage infrastructure, tenant farmers also face another potential obstacle in that they may also need permission from their landlord. The introduction of the Slurry Investment Scheme (SIS), due to open for applications in 2022, may help successful applicants to meet regulatory requirements in future. However, any slurry storage unit, complete with impermeable cover, not only has to be large enough to accommodate at least six months slurry production, but farmers must also show that they have received the necessary environmental advice and be able to evidence the effectiveness of the new storage facility, all of which will require technical advice, again at a cost.
NFU encouraging those affected to lobby MPs
The impact of these regulations on the industry has prompted the NFU to call on farmers, land owners and other interested parties to lobby their MPs in order to persuade Defra and the EA to suspend Rule 1 pending a wider consultation with all those affected, including those in the waste industry as well as farmers. As their prepared, draft letter points out:
“Farmers, in common with the wider population, do not want to waste fertiliser nor want to see rivers on their land polluted” and goes on to warn that “local farmers are now extremely worried that using organic fertiliser will result in falling foul of the Environment Agency’s interpretation of the rules.” One advantage of the UK leaving the EU means that we can set the rules to suit our indigenous agricultural industry. Creating and applying those rules without properly considering – or even understanding – the timescales and cost constraints under which farmers operate risks alienating the very people the government needs to deliver its ambitious environmental targets.