Mike Neaverson: Eustice’s fertiliser comment has got me stumped

In the context of record high fertiliser prices, George Eustice’s recent comment that there is “no shortage” of organic matter to replace all of the manufactured fertiliser we currently use in the UK has raised a few eyebrows in the industry. 

Like much of the muck coming out of Whitehall at the moment, my view is that this statement contains more spin than a delivery by the late, great Shane Warne.

As far as I can tell, for it to be true would require the Defra secretary to bend the laws of physics. 

See also: Mike Neaverson – monster electricity bill for potato storage

About the author

Mike Neaverson
Farmlife opinion writer
Mike is a potato farmer and independent agronomist from Lincolnshire. A former student columnist for Farmers Weekly, he has had a year farming in New Zealand, a couple of stints in Antarctica and five years working in management for a big farming companies. He came back to South Lincs and set up his own company in 2017 and has started his  potato operation from scratch, operating entirely on rented cropping licence land. His father is a 200ha tenant arable farmer and he is involved practically in that business, too.
Read more articles by Mike Neaverson

The ambition is laudable; nitrogen fertilisers are environmentally very damaging – among other things, accounting for more than 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But they do also keep four billion of the world’s poorest people fed.

In Eustice’s favour, little more than half of the nitrogen fertiliser we apply to some crops is actually taken up by the plant.

As an industry, we’re caught on the back foot with this one; this is a statistic that will age very badly indeed.

But no system can be 100% efficient and, from this impossible figure, even the very best farmers are still bowling extremely wide of the mark. 

Using Defra’s own documents – and ignoring its rules about actually spreading it – we can deduce that to replace all the UK’s manufactured nitrogen with manures would require, for example, an extra 2.5 billion laying hens, or 10 million dairy cows. 

Taking a hybrid of both, this would mean that every man, woman and child in the UK could each have an 18-egg omelette, washed down with five pints of whole milk, every single day. 

This farcical scenario demonstrates the scale of the mismatch between practical reality and greenwash ambition.

We could eliminate all of our manufactured nitrogen tomorrow but – even using the best technology on the horizon – it would reduce our yields very significantly, to be replaced by imports.

It’s yet another example of our government’s contradiction between environmental policy, trade folly and food security.

Mr Eustice is on a sticky wicket with this one.