UK Progress on Reducing Nitrate Pollution Contents

4Agriculture and Nitrogen Pollution

81.As part of this inquiry, we considered some of the more detailed regulations and guidance that farmers work to. This included the Nitrates Directive, specific guidance on fertiliser use and animal waste, and new rules introduced in April 2018 and July 2018 on water quality and reducing ammonia emissions. We also looked at progress made in reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilisers used and the pressures that agriculture faces in balancing the demand for more efficient food production with water quality.

The Nitrates Directive

82.The Nitrates Directive (91 / 676 /EEC) aims to protect water quality across Europe by preventing nitrates from agricultural sources polluting ground and surface waters and by promoting the use of good farming practices. Further details regarding the Directive and transposing legislation are provided in Annex 2 of this Report.

83.In England, about 58% of land is designated as a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) due to nitrate pollution of the water environment, of which: 47% of land is NVZ because rivers breach the 50 mg/l nitrate limit; 25% of land is NVZ because groundwater breaches the 50 mg/l limit; 6% of land is NVZ because there is eutrophication in estuaries and lakes/reservoirs (13 estuaries and 68 lakes/reservoirs).212 Defra reviews NVZs every 4 years to account for changes in water pollution. NVZs for 2017 to 2020 started on 1 January 2017.213 A map setting out existing NVZs, modified NVZs and new designations from 2017 is below:214

84.Defra issues guidance on the maximum average amount of manufactured fertiliser and organic manure that can be applied to most crops each year in NVZs and the conditions in which this can be done.215 It also sets how the application of fertiliser must be recorded, with records kept for five years, and how farmers must produce risk maps if they are spreading organic manure on their land indicating relevant topography and water systems.216 Farmers can apply for grassland derogations to use higher levels of nitrogen if the nitrogen comes from grazing livestock manure and the agricultural area does not include surface water, buildings, woodland or greenhouses.217 Defra also issues guidance on how silage and slurry should be stored, especially in relation to water sources.218 Further protection can be introduced in the form of Water Protection Zones (WPZs), whereby additional measures to manage the area and/or stop activities that cause or could cause further damage or pollution to water.219

Code of Good Agricultural Practice (COGAP) for Reducing Ammonia Emissions

85.In July 2018, Defra published the Code of Good Agricultural Practice (COGAP) for Reducing Ammonia Emissions in collaboration with the farming industry,220 and in September 2018 it announced a £3mn scheme to implement it.221 It included guidance on how to cover and store organic manures, with reference to guidance on the storage of silage, slurry and agricultural fuel oil, as set out above. It noted that tight lid, roof or tent structures built on concrete or steel tanks or silos were highly effective, reducing ammonia emissions during storage by around 80%, and preventing rainfall entering the store. It also offered guidance on which spreading techniques could reduce emissions.222 There was advice on the use of artificial fertiliser, such as: rapidly incorporating or injecting urea fertilisers into the soil when possible; using urease inhibitors; switching from ammonium nitrate to urea; and avoiding weather conditions that would increase emissions by reducing absorption. There was also specific advice for different types of livestock, in terms of their diets, the construction and maintenance of livestock housings, ventilation and the collection and storage of animal waste.

86.Farmers as well as receiving payments from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), mainly through the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS),223 can apply for a range of funding schemes to help them address water and air quality issues.224

The New Farming Rules for Water

87.The new Rules for farmers and land managers to prevent water pollution were introduced in April 2018.225 The rules were designed to complement existing regulations and help implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD).226 Their main aim is to: keep soil on the land; match nutrients to crop and soil needs, and keep livestock fertilisers and manures out of the water. More specifically, the new Rules will: prohibit land managers from using artificial fertiliser within two metres of water sources and prohibit the use of organic manure within specified distances of different water sources depending on the type of source and equipment used. They will require land managers to risk assess the impact of applying nutrients in terms of diffuse agricultural pollution and test soils every five years for pH, phosphorous, nitrogen, magnesium and potassium levels to allow a more precise understanding of nutrient requirements. Land managers will have to ensure that steps are taken to protect water sources from diffuse agricultural pollution, such as fencing off water bodies. Farmers who are meeting their cross-compliance requirements will already be meeting their new legal obligations, but the legislative underpinning in the rules mean that civil penalties can be used as an added deterrent and criminal prosecution can be levied against the most serious offenders.227

88.The new rules were supported by a number of organisations.228 The Soil Association supported the testing of organic soil matter so that farmers could improve the holding capacity of their soils, though it suggested that the testing of soils should be carried out independently so that a database could track how much progress was being made on soil quality.229 The Country Land and Business Association was also pleased that soil health was being taken seriously by the Government in both the New Rules for Water and its 25 Year Environment Plan, which would help progress towards reducing erosion, flood damage etc. However, it suggested that farmers also needed access to good advice on soil health and to ensure compliance with both the new rules and existing Nitrate Vulnerable Zones.230 Other witnesses questioned whether the Environment Agency and the Rural Payments Agency had sufficient resources to ensure compliance and called for additional rigorous rules for storing, managing and applying slurry.231 We were also told that farmers needed more support from Government if they were to invest in the continued improvements suggested by the New Farming Rules for Water but also for those aimed at reducing ammonia emissions, such as through increased funding from the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.232

89.We welcome the introduction of the New Farming Rules for Water, especially the focus on soil health, which we have previously championed, and the linkages with water quality. It is important that the rules are supported by good advice and information for farmers and other land managers so that the right behaviours and practices are encouraged and link to other policies and regulations, such as the wider rules for Nitrate Vulnerable Zones and those which seek to address ammonia emissions. Equally important is that data and evidence is collected and maintained to show that the rules are having an impact in improving water and soil quality and that sufficient resources are given to regulators to ensure compliance.

Progress on Reducing the use of Artificial Nitrogen Fertiliser

90.Overall fertiliser use in England and Wales has decreased by around 30% since 1982, though significantly more for phosphate and potash-based fertilisers:233 Reported average rates of nitrogen for cropped land use, have fallen slightly from 157 kg per hectare in 1984 to 146 kg/ha by 2015.234 On grassland, the average rate of usage has fallen more significantly from 131 kg/ha in 1984 to 56 kg/ha by 2015:235

Nitrogen and Phosphorous Surpluses in Soil

91.Another indicator of the success of reducing sources of nitrogen pollution, both in terms of water and air, is the “nitrogen balance” in UK soil. Though it does not estimate the actual losses of nitrogen nutrients to the environment, it does give an indication of the potential risk of losses if there are significant surpluses. The nitrogen balance takes account of both fertilisers and manure. Figures published by Defra in July 2017, show that while there has been an overall reduction in the nitrogen surplus since 2000, due to reductions in livestock and fertiliser use (as noted above), there was a slight increase (4%) between 2015 and 2016:236

UK Nitrogen Balance

92.Corresponding data for phosphorous indicates that the overall surplus is lower than nitrogen and increased slightly between 2015 and 2016:237

UK Phosphorus Balance

93.Several witnesses were critical that UK derogations from the Nitrates Directive meant that in many instances farmers were applying 250kg per hectare of nitrogen fertiliser rather than the 170kg set out in the Directive.238 We heard from witnesses who suggested how the UK could make more progress on reducing artificial fertiliser use. Several called for a tax on nitrogen fertiliser,239 while in our previous inquiry on Green Finance, Lord Turner of Ecchinswell, a former Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, suggested that thought could be given to a ‘nitrogen price’, similar to that applied to carbon in the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme.240 Professor Jarvie pointed to Denmark, which has significantly reduced nitrate levels because it had been prepared to trade off some efficiency - e.g. sub optimum levels of fertiliser for arable crops, alongside better management of slurries and recycling and recovery of waste products.241 Professor Johnes and the Soil Association, believed a major change would only come when animal manure and slurry was seen as a useful resource to be recycled, which would reduce the need for artificial fertiliser and reduce ammonia emissions because it would not be treated as a waste product to be stored and disposed of.242 Farmers could run nitrogen, phosphorous and carbon budgets, balancing what they put into the soil with what they could utilise from animal waste, to increase nutrient efficiency.243 The NFU also supported efforts to encourage cooperation between livestock and arable farmers, especially when they were in the same location so that manures and slurry could be used as a resource.244

94.The Minister acknowledged that while there had been a significant reduction in nitrogen fertiliser applied to grasslands there had only been a slight reduction for crops.245 He did, however, note that Government was introducing new rules to require soil testing which would allow farmers to make more efficient use of fertilisers.246 The Government’s Clean Air Strategy (May 2018) also states that the Government will consider legislating to introduce nitrogen fertiliser limits and the use of urea inhibitors to reduce the impact of ammonia emissions,247 while Defra told us that it will ban the use of ammonium carbonate fertilisers.248 The Minister also stated that the Government was looking at countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, where support had been given for farmyard manure banks so that manure could be used where it was needed, so reducing the need for artificial fertilisers while reducing emissions from it.249 However, he noted the geographical and logistical problems associated by many livestock farms not being located near arable farms.250 We recommend that the Government explores solutions to the logistical problems of moving organic animal waste from livestock farms to arable farms. This could address the challenge of storing and managing animal waste and mitigating ammonia emissions whilst reducing the use of artificial fertiliser. The Government should also explore other incentives for reducing artificial fertiliser use, such as nitrogen and phosphorous budgets, and the concept of a nitrogen price.

The Role of Anaerobic Digestion

95.A number witnesses suggested that anaerobic digestion might be a way of dealing with farm and food waste and reducing nitrate and other nutrient pollution. Anaerobic digestion (AD) is the process by which organic matter such as animal or food waste is broken down to produce biogas and bio-fertiliser. This process happens in the absence of oxygen in a sealed, oxygen-free tank called an anaerobic digester.251 What’s left from the process is a nutrient rich digestate or bio-fertiliser which can be pasteurised to kill any pathogens and then stored in large covered tanks ready to be applied twice a year on farmland in place of artificial fertilisers. Its proponents also note that it reduces landfill and reduces CO₂ entering the atmosphere.252 The Biosolids Assurance Scheme estimates that around 3.6 million tonnes of biosolids are recycled to agricultural land in the UK every year, providing a service valued at least £25 million to the British farming industry.253 The resultant biogas can also be used as a form of renewable energy.

96.AD can take place in both water treatment plants and on farms and is subject to environment permits, especially in relation to management of biogas,254 and regulated by the EU Sewage Sludge Directive 86/278/EEC255 and the Biosolids Assurance Scheme.256 The water companies we heard from told us that they were using AD to generate power and were moving towards treating 100% of their remaining sewage sludges by AD.257 They also noted that the resultant digestate was easier to transport and for farmers to apply to their land which meant less use of artificial fertiliser, and more organic material, which led to less soil erosion.258 The Wildlife and Countryside Link thought that the use of AD was “overwhelmingly” positive because it turned “waste into a higher-value product and potentially recover[ed] energy as well in combined heat and power”.259 It was only negative if crops were grown for AD purposes.260 The Environment Agency noted that AD was a way of managing animal waste and slurry by producing a more “consistent product that can then be exported or used more consistently on-farm”.261

97.However, Lagan Rivers Trust and Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland were concerned that the intensive use of AD facilities in Northern Ireland had not been regulated properly and had led to increased nitrate pollution from its over application to farms and associated elevated ammonia emissions.262 The Agricultural Industries Confederation also thought that AD had led to increased ammonia emissions.263

98.Anaerobic digestion offers an effective solution to managing sewage sludge and repurposing waste as a resource. This can be used as a renewable energy source and as a bio-fertiliser which can reduce the need for artificial fertiliser. Both uses have the added advantage of reducing carbon emissions, including reductions in the emissions required to manufacture artificial nitrogen fertilisers. This area is regulated by the EU, UK and an assurance scheme. Compliance is essential to realising the advantages of anaerobic digestion. The Government should set out how it is monitoring anaerobic digestion and ensuring compliance and how this is supporting reductions in air, water and soil nitrate pollution.

Future Pressures on UK Agriculture and its implications for Water Pollution

99.Professor Jarvie, from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, told us that future progress on reducing nitrate pollution would be contingent on a number of pressures.264 She pointed to population growth which could place pressures on water bodies because of increased effluents, including nitrates and phosphates.265 She also suggested that population growth and the UK leaving the EU might increase the need for more food production, which might lead to increased demands placed on the land, which could have consequences in terms of water and air pollution.266 She also suggested that climate change might change the frequency and intensity of rainfall and droughts which could change the stability of nitrate in soils.267 The Ulster Farmers Union also suggested that there could be particular tensions when Governments set ambitious growth targets for the sector alongside water quality targets.268 The Government should conduct an assessment to understand how future pressures, such as population growth and climate change, might impact upon air, water and soil quality. This could include working with the Committee on Climate Change to develop models and scenarios to help guide the Government’s nitrogen reduction strategy, as it has for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Committee could also help the Government ensure that such a strategy was aligned with other objectives such as delivering the Government’s Carbon Budgets


213 See: Defra, Nutrient management: Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, (accessed 14 June 2018). NVZ in England can be found at: Environment Agency, Check for Drinking Water Safeguard Zones and NVZs, (accessed 15 June). The area covered by NVZ between the 2009–2012 and 2013–2016 periods fell by 8% due to “new evidence, improved monitoring and methodology”. See: House of Lords European Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, Letter from Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the Chair of the Committee, (July 2018).

214 Defra NO30049.

215 See: Defra, Using nitrogen fertilisers in nitrate vulnerable zones, (accessed 15 June 2018). This includes different nitrogen load limits for different crops, specific distances from water sources and some limited exemptions.

216 As above.

218 See: Defra, Storing silage, slurry and agricultural fuel oil, (updated August 2018); Defra, Storing organic manures in nitrate vulnerable zones, (updated January 2017.

219 House of Commons Library, Water Quality, (July 2018) p 28. Only one WPZ has been designated: in the river Dee catchment in England and Wales in 1999 following a series of accidental chemical pollution incidents.

220 Defra, Code of Good Agricultural Practice (COGAP) for Reducing Ammonia Emissions, (July 2018).

221 The Scheme will fund a team of specialists who will work with farmers and landowners to implement the measures and include training events, tailored advice, individual farm visits and support with grant applications, all funded by the programme. See: Defra, £3m support scheme launched to reduce air pollution from farming, (September 2018).

222 This included a comparison of different spreading techniques: surface broadcast; trailing hose (low emission) trailing shoe (low emission); shallow injector (low emission); deep injector (low emission).

223 The BPS includes a greening payment for farmers who use their land more sustainably and care for natural resources. It includes measures such as: diversifying crops; maintaining permanent grassland; dedicating 5% of arable land to ‘ecologically beneficial elements’. It also includes making soil and ecosystems more resilient by growing a greater variety of crops, conserving soil carbon and grassland habitats associated with permanent grassland and protecting water and habitats by establishing ecological focus areas. See: How BPS 2015 payments are calculated, (updated September 2016); European Commission, Greening, (accessed 23 July 2018). Funding is linked to cross-compliance and farmers are inspected to ensure that they keep to rules and guidance.

224 This includes the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. The Higher Tier element of the Scheme allows funds various measures aimed at reducing nitrate pollution in farms based in NVZs. The Scheme also allows farmers to get free advice and training to reduce diffuse pollution from agriculture and apply for capital grants under the Countryside Stewardship Water Capital Grants Scheme. There is also a Facilitation Fund to help support collaborative projects that bring together farmers, foresters, and other land managers to improve local natural resources. Farms are inspected by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) to ensure that they are keeping to the terms and conditions of the scheme. See: Natural England et al, Countryside Stewardship: Higher Tier Manual, (Revised March 2018); Natural England et al, Guide to Countryside Stewardship: Facilitation fund 2017, (Revised August 2017).

225 Defra, Rules for farmers and land managers to prevent water pollution, (April 2018). The rules were implemented by statutory instrument: Defra, The Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations 2018, (April 2018). A consultation on the new rules was carried out between September and November 2015 and a summary of responses was published in November 2017 - Defra, Consultation on new basic rules for farmers to tackle diffuse water pollution from agriculture in England: Summary of responses, (November 2017).

226 The regulations include the Nitrates Pollution Prevention Regulations 2015 (S.I. 2015/668) and the Water Resources (Control of Pollution) (Silage, Slurry and Agricultural Fuel Oil) (England) Regulations 2010 (S.I. 2010/639). See Defra, EXPLANATORY MEMORANDUM TO THE REDUCTION AND PREVENTION OF AGRICULTURAL DIFFUSE POLLUTION (ENGLAND) REGULATIONS 2018 No. 151, (April 2018).

227 RSPB NO30037. See Defra, The Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations 2018, (April 2018). They state that the Environment Agency may impose a restoration notice, compliance notice, stop notice, fixed monetary penalty, variable monetary penalty or accept an enforcement undertaking, as if it were an offence in relation to which the sanction in question was specified in Schedule 5 to the Environmental Civil Sanctions (England) Order 2010. It is a valid defence if a person can show that they took all reasonable steps and exercised all due diligence to avoid committing the offence.

228 See: RSPB NO30037 and Hafren Waters NO30035.

229 Helen Browning Q157. See also:

230 Fraser McCauley Q158, Q169 and Q178. Paul Cottington (NFU) also thought that the requirement for manure management plan was key as farmers would needed to show where they were using manures and at what time of year (Q196–197).

231 Sue Everett NO30003. See also Rachel Salvidge, How new rules aim to tackle water pollution from farming, ENDS Report, (March 2018). The article noted the concerns of the Angling Trust and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust that the enforcement arrangements were not sufficient. The Angling Trust thought that slurry should also be subject to stricter regulation.

232 NFU NO30012.

234 As above.

235 As above.

237 As above.

238 See Brighton ChaMP NO30027.

239 Sustainable Food Trust NO30047. The Trust pointed to research which indicated that the overuse of nitrogen in agriculture was costing the UK £11.88bn a year. See also Soil Association NO30038.

240 Environmental Audit Committee, Oral Evidence: Green Finance, (HC Paper 617; February 2018), Q285.

241 Professor Helen Jarvie Q42-Q43. For example, Denmark has introduced mandatory levels of nitrogen management across the whole of the country and regulates the use of cover crops (10–14% of crops) and how much land can be left bare over winter.

242 Professor Johnes Q21 and Helen Browning (Soil Association) Q144.

243 Professor Johnes Q39 and 49 and Helen Browning (Soil Association) Q171.

244 Paul Cottington (NFU) Q198.

245 George Eustice MP Q217-Q218. E.g. the New Farming Rules for Water.

246 George Eustice MP Q219,

247 Defra, Clean Air Strategy 2018, (May 2018).

248 Defra NO30049. Ammonium Carbonate easily breaks down into ammonium-nitrogen and carbon dioxide on contact with soil. The nitrogen is in an immediately available form but subject to significant losses as ammonia gas. The ban respects UK commitments made under the Gothenburg Protocol and EU National Emissions Ceilings Directive.

249 George Eustice MP Q226. See also: Centre for Ecology and Hydrology NO30033.

250 George Eustice MP Q233.

251 BIOGEN, What is Anaerobic Digestion?, (accessed 30 July 2018). See also Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), Anaerobic Digestion, (2011).

252 As above. See also Assured Biosolids Ltd NO30041.

253 Biosolids Assurance Scheme, Welcome to the UK Biosolids Assurance Scheme website, (accessed 21 July 2018).

255 . The Directive seeks to encourage the use of sewage sludge in agriculture and to regulate its use in such a way as to prevent harmful effects on soil, vegetation, animals and humans. It prohibits the use of untreated sludge on agricultural land unless it is injected or incorporated into the soil. Treated sludge is defined as having undergone “biological, chemical or heat treatment, long-term storage or any other appropriate process so as significantly to reduce its fermentability and the health hazards resulting from its use”. Sludge must not be applied to soil in which fruit and vegetable crops are growing or grown, or less than ten months before fruit and vegetable crops are to be harvested. Grazing animals must not be allowed access to grassland or forage land less than three weeks after the application of sludge. See: European Commission, Sewage Sludge, (accessed 31 July 2018).

256 Biosolids Assurance Scheme, The Scheme Standard, (January 2018). It covers the treatment, management, transportation and application of biosolids.

257 Mark Morton (Yorkshire Water Services Ltd) Q124; Dr Lucinda Gilfoyle (Anglian Water) Q 125; Paul Stanfield (Wessex Water) Q127; Yorkshire Water Services Ltd NO30021; Northumbrian Water NO30044.

258 Dr Lucinda Gilfoyle (Anglian Water) Q 125 and Paul Stanfield (Wessex Water) Q 127.

259 David Johnson (Wildlife and Countryside Link) Q75

260 David Johnson (Wildlife and Countryside Link) Q77.

261 Helen Wakeham (Environment Agency) Q231.

262 Lagan Rivers Trust NO30017; Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland NO30033.

263 Jane Salter (Agricultural Industries Confederation) Q182–183.

264 Professor Jarvie Q14.

265 See also Environment Agency, The State of the Environment: Water Quality, (February 2018).

266 See also Professor Johnes Q49; NFU NO30012; Mr Harriet Moore-Boyd NO30028.

267 Professor Jarvie Q14. See also Environment Agency, The State of the Environment: Water Quality, (February 2018); Wildlife and Countryside Link NO30029.

268 Ulster Farmers’ Union NO30009; Mr Harriet Moore-Boyd NO30028.




Published: 22 November 2018