Opinion: Low prices make it hard to meet new farming water rules

What have Russia’s actions in Ukraine got to do with the poor state of rivers in this country? I’ll come back to that later, but first let us consider the Farming Rules for Water (FRW).

The FRW that came into force in 2018 are regulations that apply where agriculture could cause diffuse pollution – pollution that comes from a wide area or range of sources.

Under FRW, farmers and growers have to prevent manure, fertiliser and soil getting into watercourses and affecting water quality.

See also: The new water rules for farmers in England explained

About the author

paul cobbPaul Cobb
Columnist, Farmers Weekly

Paul Cobb is a Kent-based independent environmental land management adviser and a partner in FWAG (Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group) South East.

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This covers so much – using and storing manure and fertiliser, planting and harvesting, soil and livestock management – that I warned farmers at the time that FRW would be like having a nitrate vulnerable zone everywhere, despite the assurance from the Environment Agency that they would be applied gently.

Fast-forward to 2021, and it seems the FRW have indeed been applied gently – so much so that, in the face of numerous breaches, no prosecutions or fines have been applied, much to the chagrin of bodies including the Rivers Trust and the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA).

In a response to Defra’s regulatory review of the FRW in January, the SSA pointed to a lack of communication, awareness and enforcement as causes of failure – pretty much everything that might have made them work, in other words.

Others see the soft-touch approach as a green light to go ahead and pollute.

No one disputes how hard it is to mange the potential pollutants on any farm, let alone those in the livestock and dairy sectors, especially when catastrophic rainfall events that can trigger incidents seem to be the norm these days.

Accident waiting to happen

Ironically, it’s the purpose-built, large-scale dairy the planners always throw out that would have the infrastructure to deal with masses of muck and slurry.

The average family dairy farm that has grown piecemeal over the years, and may have a setup that coped fine 30 years ago, is an accident waiting to happen.

Wafer-thin margins and chronic underinvestment are not a recipe for success when it comes to avoiding diffuse pollution.

Expansion isn’t either, if the farm outstrips its capacity to deal with what it produces – a valuable supply of nutrients, but a headache to store and spread at the right time.

In its response, the SSA added: “Supply chain contractual arrangements may be a stronger influence on farmers to breach the rules than the threat of enforcement is an influence to comply with them.”

In other words, the market is the bigger force here, and it wants what we produce for as little cost as possible.

So we should look up from the creaking slurry store to supermarket wars and loss-leader sales, to a diminishing liquid milk market and world oversupply, to the rise of veganism and, oh yes, to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea.

Why? Because when the Crimea came back to the motherland in 2014, the EU imposed sanctions. Russia responded by banning imports of food from the EU, including dairy products, worth €1.4bn/year (£1.2bn/year).

It has not lifted the ban for the UK, even after Brexit – another turn of the screw for our dairy industry.

So, next time you see a dead fish in a river, blame president Putin.

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