Autumn application of organic materials under threat

01 March 2021

Environment Farming rules for water

A narrow and short-sighted interpretation of water quality regulation by the Environment Agency (EA) promises to outlaw the use of organic materials in the autumn, except in a very limited number of circumstances.

The Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations 2018 are also referred to as the Farming Rules for Water.

Regulation four, commonly referred to as ‘rule one’, requires farmers to plan any application of organic materials and manufactured fertilisers so that it does not exceed the needs of the soil and crop on that land.

The NFU has seen farmers challenged under rule one for using materials like digestate and biosolids in the autumn, but the current approach of the regulator would seem to extend to all organic materials, including farmyard manure.

The EA says there is typically no crop or soil requirement for nutrient applications at this time of year, unless crops with a greater demand are grown, such as oilseed rape or grass.

Going against common practice

Not only does this interpretation of rule one fly in the face of common practice, but it seems to ignore the significant future supply of nutrients from these applications as well as the wider benefits of building soil organic matter.

We have continually raised these concerns with the regulator over the last two years and recently had the opportunity to formally raise them with Defra as part of its ongoing review of the regulations.

We also told Defra:

  • The long-term data suggest nutrient pollution from agriculture has fallen markedly over recent decades, due in large part to the wider adoption of good practice, increased uptake of advice, and better nutrient use efficiency.
  • While these trends appear to have continued in recent years, it is unclear whether the Farming Rules for Water have made a difference following their introduction in 2018.
  • Awareness of the regulations among farmers is low but, as Defra said when the rules were introduced, they are merely ‘standardising good farm practices that many are already performing’.
  • More, and better, guidance on nutrient management planning for farmers, advisers and agronomists is needed in order to maximise the nutrient use efficiency of organic materials, while minimising losses to the environment.
  • There is a clear role for Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) and industry-led initiatives, such as Championing the Farmed Environment and Tried & Tested, to help deliver improved messaging, and further Government support for these would be welcome.

Examining impact

AHDB is commissioning a piece of work that will examine the practical and financial impacts of the current EA approach to rule one' and we are calling on the authorities to thoroughly consider the findings when deciding how to move forward with the regulations.

manure slurry

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