In his last Arable Farming column of 2020, NFU crops board chair Matt Culley discusses Defra's consultation on urea fertiliser and the options available.
Writing this on a cold December morning I, like many other growers, would not normally be thinking about our nitrogen fertiliser products and applications of choice. But with the launch of Defra’s consultation on solid urea fertilisers, I find myself considering the impacts of the potential loss of such an important and valuable tool in the nutrient supply toolbox – what it would mean for my own business and the industry as a whole.
The consultation, which closes on the 26 of January, is the result of recommendations made in the government’s Clean Air Strategy (published in 2019) which sets out ‘a requirement to take action to reduce emissions from urea based fertilisers'. Since then the NFU crops team has worked closely with Defra and has had some success in influencing the resulting consultation options. It was clear from the start that Defra’s preferred option was for a total ban for solid urea, which is clearly an option that the NFU can not support, so we welcome the inclusion of two other options within the consultation and the fact that liquid urea is excluded, although we do have concerns that any restrictions on solid urea could affect the cost and availability of liquid products.
Solid urea is the most commonly used form of nitrogen fertiliser in the world. It offers agronomic and environmental benefits when used alongside ammonium nitrate and is safer to handle, as well as helping to maintain a competitive UK fertiliser market. It is good to see the option two: compulsory use of urease inhibitor to stabilise solid urea, included in the consultation as it recognises the ability for growers to choose to carry on using urea in their nitrogen plans, although we understand that the inclusion of inhibitors does add costs and reduces the competitive edge that solid urea gives.
We also recognise that there may be a number of other issues relating to practicality, effectiveness and concerns around the long term impacts of inhibitors on soil biology being largely unknown and this will be something highlighted in our response The final option, a restricted spreading period whereby solid urea could only be used between 15 January and 31 March, is again welcomed as an option in the consultation, as it does go a long way to recognising the important role urea plays in early nitrogen applications and how, when used in conjunction with AN, it improves good practice undertaken by UK growers. Farmers have made great strides in reducing the environmental impacts of their fertiliser usage, either by reducing leaching in the early spring or by cutting back the potential emissions later on in their nitrogen management plans.
However, this final option also has its drawbacks. Due to more volatile weather patterns, farming by calendar date is increasingly difficult and a narrow and inflexible application window may well force growers to spread solid fertiliser in poor and less than ideal weather conditions to avoid breaking the rules. Growers also wouldn’t want to take the risk of purchasing urea, only to have it left in store as the stated period closes and then having to replace it with AN at considerable expense to their businesses.
Let’s not forget that this consultation is focused on England only – any regulation that prohibits the use of solid urea would just leave us open to more competitive produce or imports from other parts of the UK and the world that will carry on its use. Ultimately, NFU crops team will continue working with Defra to find a way forward and achieve the best possible outcome for UK growers, but we are disappointed that Defra has decided to take a regulatory approach.
In my view, the provision of accurate and science-based advice on the efficient use of urea would increase grower engagement and good practice. A joint industry and government licencing scheme would help significantly reduce ammonia emissions as required and go a long way to achieving our net zero goals, without taking this important product off the market.
It is critical that as many growers as possible get involved with the consultation and make their views known to Defra as to why urea is and should remain an important part of growing the nation’s food.