Farmers face restrictions to tackle ammonia emissions

Farms will face new restrictions on spreading manure and slurry under the government’s “world-leading” plan to tackle air pollution.

The government plans to regulate to reduce ammonia emissions from farming,  including a requirement to spread slurries and digestate using low-emission spreading equipment (trailing shoe or trailing hose or injection) by 2025.

In the UK, agriculture is responsible for 88% of all ammonia emissions – one-quarter of which comes from ammonia lost in the atmosphere when nitrogen fertiliser is made and spread on farmland.

See also: Ways to reduce farm ammonia emissions before regulation comes in

The rest comes from the use of high-protein feeds in dairy, pig and poultry production, most of which can be traced back to nitrogen-based fertilisers.

Launching its Clean Air Strategy on Monday (14 January), the government pledged to work with the industry to:

  • Support farmers to invest in infrastructure and equipment to reduce emissions
  • Introduce regulations to require farmers to use low-emission farming techniques
  • Introducing regulations to minimise pollution from fertiliser use.

The government says it will provide farmers with the support they need to make these important changes.

Defra farm minister George Eustice said: “Ammonia emissions can have a significant effect on the environment and on our health, and as custodians of the land, farmers have an important role to play in reducing them.

“Our future agriculture policy will involve financial rewards and incentives to help farmers reduce ammonia emissions.”

Emissions of ammonia fell by 13% between 1980 and 2015, the strategy says. However, since then there has been an increase in emissions, largely as a result of fertiliser use. Defra aims to reduce emissions of ammonia against the 2005 baseline by 8% by 2020 and 16% by 2030.

When ammonia drifts over industrial regions, it combines with other pollutants to form solid microscopic particles known as “particulate matter” that can stick to fine lung tissues, contributing to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Partly as a result of this, more than 40 towns and cities in the UK are at, or exceeding, air pollution limits set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Soil degradation

Overuse of nitrogen fertiliser also damages soil health and has contributed to soil degradation, with one-third of the planet’s farmland soils now classified as severely degraded.

The Agriculture Bill already sets out how future financial support for the farming sector will be focused on delivering improvements to the environment. It proposes that a future environmental land management system should fund targeted action to protect habitats affected by ammonia.

In September, the government launched a £3m programme through the Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) partnership to fund a team of specialists who work with farmers and landowners in priority areas to provide training events, tailored advice, individual farm visits and support with grant applications. 

With partners, Natural England will be running a series of farm demonstration events in February and March to show what can be done to reduce ammonia emissions.

How the government plans to reduce ammonia emissions from farming

The 109-page Clean Air Strategy (PDF) highlights steps the government will take to reduce ammonia emissions from farming.

“We will consult on each policy as quickly as possible to provide farmers, farm suppliers and farm service providers with certainty on the investments needed,” says the report.

“In order to promote innovation and provide flexibility, wherever possible, we will seek to design a regulatory approach that enables adoption of alternative proven and verifiable techniques for achieving equivalent or greater emissions reductions.”

The regulation plans include:

  • A requirement to take action to reduce emissions from urea-based fertilisers. The government will consult on this policy in 2019 “with a view to introducing legislation in the shortest possible timeframe”.
  • A requirement for all solid manure and solid digestate spread to bare land (other than that managed in a no-till system) to be incorporated rapidly (within 12 hours), with legislation to be introduced in the shortest possible timeframe.
  • A requirement to spread slurries and digestate using low-emission spreading equipment (trailing shoe or trailing hose or injection) by 2025. Those spreading digestate or large volumes of slurry may be required to adopt the practice at an earlier date.
  • A requirement for slurry and digestate stores to be covered by 2027. Those producing or storing digestate or large volumes of slurry may be required to adopt the practice at an earlier date.
  • Mandatory design standards for new intensive poultry, pig and beef livestock housing and for dairy housing. The standards will be designed in collaboration with industry experts.

Industry reaction

The plans to regulate have received a mixed response from the industry.

The NFU said farmers would need considerable financial support, especially in areas such as slurry storage and low emission spreading equipment.

NFU deputy president Guy Smith added: “The NFU is also concerned about plans to extend permitting to dairy farms and what the government describes as ‘intensive’ beef farms. 

“More detail is needed as to how these ‘intensive’ farms would be defined and how the changes would not restrict growth and raise production costs, which we believe would put the UK beef and dairy sectors at a competitive disadvantage to the rest of the world.”

Joe Stanley, an arable and beef farmer from Leicestershire and a FW columnist, said on Twitter: “Another day, another blow to practicable, profitable mixed farming.

“New rules set to increase cost and difficulty of dealing with organic manure, discouraging mixed systems. This needs to be implemented very carefully by Michael Gove.”

The CLA welcomed the plans, but warned that any future regulation must enable farm businesses to remain economically viable.

Chief land use policy adviser Susan Twining said: “Funding for new technology and research will pave the way for more sustainable production systems and the advice offered by the government in line with the rewards through ELMs will help farmers adapt and invest in the changes needed.”

Green groups

Liz Bowles, head of farming at the Soil Association, said: “It is vital that the strategy sets out government actions to support and promote a wider shift towards more extensive farming systems, such as grass-based systems and organic, which have higher animal welfare standards and lower stocking densities.”

Richard Young, policy director of the Sustainable Food Trust, added: “We need a fundamental change in the way we produce food, moving away from heavy reliance on nitrogen fertiliser towards mixed farm systems that use forage legumes, such as clover, to rebuild the soil’s natural nitrogen levels.

“Future ‘public goods’ funding should be used to help shift farming systems in this more sustainable direction.”

The Clean Air Strategy is for England only, with Wales planning to consult on and publish a strategy later this year.