FW OPINION: Damage limitation succeeds on NVZs

There are some battles in life that just cannot be won, and the fight against the EU’s nitrates controls is one of them says Philip Clarke.

The legislation may be hopelessly out of date. The science on which it is based may have been taken from Mickey Mouse’s chemistry notebook.

But the fact is, it’s all written down in the 1991 EU Nitrates Directive, and the EU Commission says the UK must change the way it implements it, or pay a multi-million euro fine.

Faced with this challenge – a legal challenge no less – DEFRA has had no choice but to respond, by extending the existing nitrate vulnerable zones in England, increasing the amount of slurry storage farmers must provide and limiting when they can spread.

The result is a massive bill for livestock and dairy farmers in particular, at a time when production costs are rising rapidly. DEFRA rather vaguely puts the additional cost to the industry at £50m to £100m a year.

The NFU is justifiably angry. Its president Peter Kendall described the outcome as “a bitter blow” and condemned the government for not offering more financial assistance.

But he is surprisingly coy about what the NFU and other industry bodies have achieved from their year-long negotiation with government. On closer inspection, the outcome is a whole lot better than it might have been.

Limiting NVZs to 68% rather than 100% of England is worth an estimated £48m, while having 1.5% of existing NVZs de-classified sets an important precedent.

Defeating the DEFRA proposal to force all arable farmers to maintain a winter cover crop has effectively saved the vining pea industry from extinction and is worth another £28-£30m.

There is also more flexibility in the amount of slurry storage farmers will have to provide, matching it more closely to individual needs. This will save some farmers a good deal of money. And those that do have to invest will at least now be able to offset the expenditure against tax.

It also seems certain that DEFRA will get a derogation from Brussels on the maximum level of organic nitrogen farmers can apply each year. This will enable them to stock at 1 cow/acre rather than the 0.7 cows/acre specified in the Directive, worth another £19m.

Taking this all into account, the NFU and others may not have won the battle, but they have won some valuable concessions for the farming industry.

* To see the full DEFRA plan, click here

* For more information, see this week’s Farmers Weekly, in newsagents on Friday (25 July).