As part of its Clean Air Strategy, the Government has launched a consultation on how best to reduce the ammonia pollution that arises from the use by English farmers of 150,000 tonnes of solid urea fertiliser each year. Once spread on fields, if there is then a spell of hot dry weather, this urea can release large quantities of ammonia into the atmosphere.
Ammonia has multiple detrimental effects on the environment, although it is not a greenhouse gas. Where it drifts over urban areas it combines with other pollutants to form microscopic ‘particulate matter’ so small it can enter people’s lungs and bloodstreams where it can cause respiratory and other illnesses. As if that wasn’t bad enough, ammonia also leads to acid rain and reduced bio-diversity.
The obvious question, given the highly polluting effects of urea, is: “Why are farmers still using the stuff at all?” The answer is that urea is significantly cheaper than the alternative: ammonium nitrate. Indeed the annual total cost to English farmers of making the switch would be close to £17 million per year. This is a substantial sum of money given that post-Brexit arable farming incomes are forecast to be tight.
The Government’s consultation asks whether there should be an outright ban on the use of solid urea or a requirement to treat it with an inhibitor to slow the release of ammonia. There is also a third proposal to restrict the use of urea to a window between 15 January and 31 March each year, when soils are cooler and ammonia evaporation therefore less.
Personally, I would prefer an outright ban on the use of solid urea as this produces the best results, with a projected benefit to society of £110 million a year.
That said, until or unless a ban is introduced, I will continue to use urea on my crops where I consider it brings me a better result in terms of crop yield or improves my efficiency by reducing my growing costs. It is not up to me as an individual farmer to compromise my efficiency by introducing more environmentally friendly farming techniques.
Agriculture is a highly competitive, low-profit margin industry and if I start deliberately to undermine my own efficiency I won’t be in business long. It is up to government to set out the rules and regulations that apply to what farmers can and can’t do. Then we are all competing with each other fairly.
So, I wish the Government well with implementing its Clean Air Strategy, with the significant proviso that whatever regulations it imposes on me as an English arable farmer must apply to my wheat growing counterparts in Brazil or Ukraine. Otherwise, we English farmers might just as well all throw in the towel as the first tonne of Brazilian urea-fed wheat docks at Tilbury.