The Environment Agency (EA) shows no signs of easing its approach to spreading farmyard manure and slurry in the fall, despite pressure from MEPs in the Environment, Food and Business Committee rural areas (Efra) and regular meetings with industry via a working group.
The restrictions came into play this year, following a stricter interpretation of the 2018 agriculture for water rules by the EA, which insisted that the spreading of organic matter should only be allowed only to meet the immediate nutrient requirements of the crop.
This in fact ruled out the spreading of organic manure from 1 September on meadows and cereals, limiting any spreading of winter rapeseed, which would need it immediately.
Following numerous complaints from industry and lobbying, the EA introduced a temporary exemption – Regulatory Position Statement 252 – which allowed some release this fall, but with strict conditions.
For example, farmers had to notify the EA in advance of any land application and could only do so if there were no other means of removing organic matter.
Exchange of letters
The negative impact of these restrictions was exposed in a letter from Efra MPs committee chairman Neil Parish to EA chief executive Sir James Bevan at the end of October.
In the letter, he said that spreading organic matter in the fall “is a well-established part of good soil management”. This allowed nutrients to be available for growing in the spring, while incorporating them into the soil, before a crop was planted, would reduce air pollution.
Preventing farmers from using organic fertilizers in the fall would also make them more likely to use bagged fertilizers, which “cost more, have a higher carbon footprint, and increase ammonia nitrate levels – which goes against the government’s ambitions for net zero and clean air.
The Efra committee therefore asked the EA to review its current approach to the Water Agriculture Rules to ensure that it does not prevent the responsible application of organic manure on the soil in the fall to a crop in spring ”.
But in his response, Sir James clarifies that the EA is not for running. He explains that farmers can still apply organic matter (like green compost) in the fall – as long as it “doesn’t contain nutrients that aren’t needed.”
And he says RPS 252 was “specifically designed to help farmers this fall”, giving no indication that the provisions will be extended to next year.
In an attempt to find a compromise, a working group was set up by Defra in September, comprising representatives of farmers and agronomists.
But reports from members of that group suggest progress has been almost nonexistent, with Defra keen to avoid diffuse pollution.
“The NFU and the industry at large are fully committed to delivering the desired results for water quality and the wider environment,” said NFU Vice President Stuart Roberts.
“However, our concern is that the Environment Agency’s rigid interpretation of this legislation will have an extremely damaging impact on the agricultural sector.
“The current approach presents significant political conflicts with the government’s ambitions to improve soil health, reduce emissions and reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture.
“We strongly believe that working with agriculture and other organizations to see how we improve the efficient use of organic fertilizers is the best way to avoid these unintended consequences and, most importantly, to ensure water quality. .
“The NFU will continue discussions with the Environment Agency, government and industry stakeholders to develop these solutions as part of a collaborative and holistic approach. “