Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Seventh Report


Nitrate Vulnerable Zones
1.We are concerned that the 50 mg/l limit continues to be the basis of the Directive. We are also concerned that the Directive's implementation methodology does not reflect current European Union best practice. We recommend that Defra raise in the Council of Ministers the need to review the scientific evidence that underpins the Directive. If the evidence is found wanting, Defra should try to build an alliance with other member states to persuade the Commission to re-evaluate the Directive's basis. (Paragraph 7)
Trends in nitrate levels in surface and ground waters
2.There seems to be general agreement that nitrate levels in some ground waters are on an upward trend, but this may be the result of agricultural practices dating back decades. Trends in ground waters should not be used to justify changes to an Action Programme that was introduced only in 1998 and extended in 2002. We regret that it is not possible to ascertain a clearer picture of trends in nitrate levels in surface waters and recommend that Defra and the Environment Agency supply more information on this matter in future reviews of the Action Programme. (Paragraph 30)
3.We believe that, as Defra admitted, there is insufficient evidence to assess how effective the current Action Programme has been in reducing nitrate pollution, but, in the light of legal action on the part of the European Commission, we agree that changes need to be made in order to bring the UK into compliance with the Directive. (Paragraph 31)
Defra's consultation and the implementation timetable
4.We recommend that Defra keep farmers apprised of the proposed implementation date for the changes to NVZ coverage and the Action Programme so that they know where they stand and can plan accordingly. (Paragraph 34)
The extent of NVZ coverage
5.Defra should avoid unnecessary regulation by continuing to designate specific NVZs, rather than adopting a whole-territory approach. However, in the light of continuing concerns about the decision to apply NVZ coverage to the whole of a river catchment, even if the upland part of the river has low nitrate levels, Defra should consider whether its designation methodology is as well-targeted as is practicable and publish a report as soon as possible on its conclusions about this matter. (Paragraph 41)
6.We recommend that NVZs that were designated under the 2002 methodology but would not qualify for designation under the new methodology should be de-designated, and that the appeals mechanism should be open to existing, as well as new, NVZs. (Paragraph 43)
Whole-farm limit for livestock manure
7.Defra should implement the 170 kg N/ha limit to bring England into compliance with the Directive, but, given the difficulties such a limit will cause some dairy farmers, it should apply for a derogation to enable a higher limit to be operated where this is justified by the evidence. The derogation application should be made as swiftly as possible so that, if it is granted, any gap between implementation of the 170 kg N/ha limit and the return to a higher limit is kept to a minimum. (Paragraph 48)
Crop requirement limitation
8.We recommend that Defra proceed with the crop requirement limitation proposals, subject to providing clarification on the difference between Nmax and the nitrogen requirement of the crop, as requested by the Environment Agency. (Paragraph 50)
Controlling where and how nitrogen is applied
9.We recommend that Defra proceed with its proposals on controlling where and how nitrogen should be applied, although it should clarify the meaning of some of the terms it uses in its consultation document, such as "high trajectory" and "high pressure". (Paragraph 53)
Cover crops
10.We urge Defra to leave the universal use of cover crops out of the Action Programme. Cover crops are not required under the Directive, would have a negative impact on biodiversity, and are not suitable for all soil types. However, given that there is evidence to suggest that cover crops have benefits in specific circumstances, we recommend that Defra evaluate an alternative method of encouraging their uptake in targeted areas. (Paragraph 59)
Closed periods for manufactured fertiliser
11.Defra should reconsider the practicality of the prohibition on applying nitrogen fertiliser if heavy rain is forecast within 48 hours. However, it should liaise with the Met Office to evaluate the practicality of having incorporated into the weather forecasts that are provided to the farming media information to guide farmers on the optimum periods when it would be safe to apply fertilisers. (Paragraph 62)
Closed periods for organic manure
12.We welcome Defra's open-minded approach to the closed periods for the spreading of organic manure and recommend that it publish a short cost-benefit analysis of its proposals to establish whether the new closed periods would be disproportionately costly to the farming industry. If Defra decides to proceed with the changes to the closed periods, it should get the best possible advice on the potential for building flexibility into the requirements. (Paragraph 66)
Provisions for the storage of livestock manure
13.We agree with Defra that the storage calculation methodology is important in that it enables farmers to work out 22 or 26 weeks' capacity according to the circumstances on their own farms. Defra must address its own criticism: namely, that the calculation methodology may not have been fully taken on board by farmers. It must outline the information programme it proposes to adopt to deal with this issue. (Paragraph 70)
14.We recommend that Defra recognise farmers' concerns about the relationship between the storage capacity requirements and the length of the closed periods. Defra should re-evaluate and publish the evidence for relating storage requirements to a fixed period of 22 or 26 weeks, rather than the closed periods that apply on individual farms. Consideration should be given to relating storage requirements directly to the closed periods that apply on individual farms. (Paragraph 71)
15.In the light of criticism from both the NFU and the Environment Agency, we urge Defra to reconsider the necessity for the longer storage times it proposes for pig slurry and poultry manure. (Paragraph 72)
16.Given the need to arrange finance, obtain planning permission, and commission and construct slurry stores, two years is an unrealistically short time in which to expect farmers to comply with the new storage measures. We recommend that they be given four years. (Paragraph 74)
Anaerobic digestion
17.We welcome Defra's commitment to anaerobic digestion, but we caution against portraying it as something that will help farmers to comply with the Action Programme until such time as it can be demonstrated precisely how it is helpful in this context. We recommend that Defra prioritise its consideration of the role anaerobic digestion could play in helping farmers to manage the storage of manure under the Action Programme and make its conclusions public before the statutory instrument implementing the changes comes into force, so that farmers can make an informed decision. (Paragraph 78)
Financial support and advice
18.The proposed new Action Programme places a considerable financial burden on livestock and dairy farmers at a time when their ability to absorb these costs is questionable, given high feed prices and the phasing out of the Agricultural Buildings Allowance. We regret that Defra is not in a position to provide the kind of financial support offered under the Farm Waste Grants Scheme and recommend that it make representations to the Treasury on the need for financial support in the form of enhanced tax allowances for the construction of slurry storage facilities. (Paragraph 83)
19.We urge Defra to adopt a pro-active approach to explaining the changes to the Action Programme by circulating written guidance that is as simple and concise as possible, providing workshops and seminars, and offering farmers the chance to obtain one-to-one advice. It should also provide an online advice service for farmers affected by the changes. (Paragraph 84)
Record keeping
20.Adequate records should be kept to enable the Environment Agency to assess whether the provisions in the final version of the Action Programme are being complied with. However, the record-keeping requirements should be as straightforward as possible to avoid placing an unnecessary burden on farmers. They should comply with best practice, as set out by the Better Regulation Executive in its five principles of good regulation, which state that any regulation should be transparent, accountable, proportionate, consistent and targeted. (Paragraph 87)
21.The Nitrates Directive is undoubtedly flawed. Unlike the Water Framework Directive, which, as its names suggests, provides a framework to achieve a common goal, but leaves much of the detail of implementation to member states, the Nitrates Directive imposes prescriptive rules in an attempt to achieve its aim of reducing water pollution by nitrates from agricultural sources. Moreover, the scientific justification for the figures mentioned in the Nitrates Directive—specifically the 50 mg/l limit for nitrates in surface and ground waters and the 170 kg N/ha whole-farm limit for livestock manures—is at best unclear. The European Commission should carry out post-legislative scrutiny of the Directive to learn lessons about the way in which it was designed in the first place, the effectiveness of its results, and the difficulties member states have had in implementing it. (Paragraph 88)
22. However, for the time being at least, Defra must find a way of satisfying the Commission that it is complying with the Directive. Defra's plan to implement the 170 kg N/ha whole-farm limit is a sensible first step, given that this is one area where England is incontrovertibly in breach of the Directive. Some of the proposals, such as the closed periods for organic manure and the storage provisions, need refinement, and the cover crops requirement should be dropped altogether. Defra must convince the Commission that it is implementing the Directive while convincing farmers that the changes to the Action Programme are fair and proportionate. It is a difficult task but, as other member states have proved, not an impossible one. (Paragraph 89)

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