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Time to end farming’s reliance on chemical fertiliser

Time to end farming’s reliance on chemical fertiliser

The government has just announced steps to assist farmers as they grapple with escalating fertiliser costs.

Already struggling with the supply chain impacts of Brexit and COVID-19, many British farmers are now facing massive price hikes for artificial nitrogen, which the industry is heavily dependent on for conventional production of crops and grass.

As well as becoming increasingly expensive, synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is a fossil fuel derived product and therefore also comes with a high environmental price tag. And, as we are learning, is heavily dependent on natural gas supplies in Ukraine and Russia.

Whilst it enables producers to intensively grow crops, it leads to high levels of nitrous oxide emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) and does nothing to support soil health.

What can be learnt from organic farming?

The Soil Association welcomes recent comments from George Eustice on the need to accelerate a reduction in our reliance on synthetic nitrogen. 

We are calling for a new emphasis on natural nitrogen sources by growing legume plants like clover or beans and by incorporating grazing animals onto arable farms so they can restore soils and recycle nutrients through animal manures. 

Artificial fertilisers are not permitted in organic farming, and organic farmers are already using these techniques and have lessons to share. It would make sense for their voice to be heard at the new fertiliser roundtable that Farming Minister Victoria Prentis is launching.

We also want to see organic farming systems recognised for the benefits they deliver and properly rewarded within the new Sustainable Farming Incentive. Those incentives should also provide more encouragement for farmers to plant legumes.

Support for nature-friendly methods

But a change to natural nitrogen can’t happen overnight as it often requires farmers to re-think their whole crop rotation and farming system. So, they will need support and advice to help them make the transition as swiftly as possible.

We are calling for a surge in investment for farmer-led research into these alternative practices, and support for adopting these practices by enabling farmers to learn from each other.

In today’s Defra press release, Soil Association Farming Director Liz Bowles said: “It’s vital that we act differently to our post-war response in the 1940s by prioritising climate and nature alongside food security. The ongoing damage being done to soils, wildlife, and climate poses the biggest threat to food security and nature-friendly, agroecological farming provides the best path to ensuring long-term resilience."

 “The transition needed cannot happen overnight, and a step-change in funding for farmer-led research and peer-to-peer learning will be essential. This will help farmers gain the confidence needed to recycle nutrients from livestock or nitrogen-fixing crops like clover in more complex rotations.”

This thinking was also outlined in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, and we hope the delay in the government’s response to that will be used to make sure the new realities around artificial nitrogen inputs are fully taken on board.

The move to shelve urea regulation until at least 2025 is a move in the wrong direction. Not only do we need fast to address the escalating cost of synthetic nitrogen, but the impact of ammonia on air quality and nitrogen in our watercourses needs action now. It poses a grave threat to the environment, wildlife, and human health, but to date, the government has failed to meet its own targets.  

When under so many competing pressures, it is essential farmers have clarity on the best practices to safeguard the environment and public health, and how farming will need to change over the next decade.