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Fertiliser Costs

Volume 712: debated on Thursday 28 April 2022

We have announced that we will be supporting our growers by delaying the changes of use to urea fertiliser by a year. We have revised and improved statutory guidance on the farming rules for water, with slurry storage grants available to help farmers to implement them. We are cognisant of fertiliser costs. We are working across Government to ensure that we are aware of and working on the situation. I have an organic fertiliser task and finish group and I am talking to industry and farmers. We have the second meeting of our fertiliser taskforce shortly.

I am extremely worried about the impact that rising fertiliser costs will have on our food production and food security in this country. Andy Matthews, who farms in Aberbrân, tells me that fertiliser was once £270 a tonne and is now £900 a tonne, which is a real risk for our food production capabilities. Innovation will be one of the ways out of that, so can the Minister update the House on the work that she is doing to ensure our long-term food security?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend that innovation is key. We are seeing innovation come through at a tremendous pace to help farmers and growers with some of the key challenges that they are facing. For example, ensuring that we optimise the use of fertilisers is a huge saving, as is ensuring that we can drive yields. We are doing that by investing £38 million through the farming innovation programme. We have launched an £8 million competition for large R&D partnerships. This week, I was at the James Hutton Institute and the Roslin Institute. The amount of innovation that is coming through from farmers and innovators is something that this country should celebrate.

I have been contacted by several farmers in my constituency explaining that, because fertiliser and fuel costs are rocketing, they may not be able to afford to plant for next season. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to reverse the cut to the basic payment scheme to help our farmers survive the crisis?

I thank the hon. Lady for the question. That is too much of a blunt instrument that does not help the right farmers. We are supporting all farmers, which is why the fertiliser taskforce and the work across Government to keep an eye on the situation and to ensure that we are supporting correctly are important.

Some years ago, in high summer, people could often smell Worthing before they could see it, because of the rotting seaweed on the beaches that had previously been collected by farmers before commercial fertilisers became widely available. Now that we have the Sussex kelp restoration project, to which the Secretary of State has kindly already contributed, and given that seaweed has a major environmentally friendly use in feeding livestock and fertilising agricultural lands, will he look again at how we can promote it as a good, environmentally friendly alternative to commercial fertilisers?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), has been down to see that work. Fantastic work is going on in other universities, such as Aberystwyth, on the use of seaweed for feed additives and so on. That is what I am talking about. The time is ripe for us to look at those other developments; what is going on in his area is very exciting.

Does the Minister agree, though, that we must be careful about what we put on our soil in terms of weed killers and nutrients? According to Cambridge University, soil degradation is one of the biggest challenges to our planet. We have been mistreating our soil for many years. Can we be careful about what we do with it?

Indeed, soil is the main plank of the sustainable farming incentive. It lies at the heart of ensuring that our land is as productive as it can be. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and that is where innovation can play its part to ensure that we breed plants that use fewer pesticides and resources. All those things not only enhance our farmland but ensure that our soil is the key ingredient so that we can all feed and improve the biodiversity of our country.

Cost, of course, is incredibly important but so is availability. The UK food system is dependent on two factories for CO2, one of which has been shut for months and the other has been operating at relatively low levels. Before Christmas, the Government were slow to intervene and coy about the terms of the agreement. Can the Minister tell the House today what that agreement was, how much it cost and what the plan is to ensure that the UK food system is secure in future?

This is a highly complex area which obviously involves CO2 and various other things that are important to industries right across the country. We are keeping a very close eye on this, but I say to our farmers that they should have confidence and make sure they put forward their orders so we have sustainable demand, which will of course improve the supply chain.

Sadly, food security has come into sharp relief again with the dreadful situation in Ukraine. Our fantastic farmers in Cumbria and across the UK continue to produce high-quality food in these difficult times but, as we have heard, there are increasing pressures from fertiliser costs, animal feed costs and fuel costs. Can my hon. Friend assure me that there will be cross-Government work to support our farmers to mitigate these pressures so that they can continue to produce the highest quality food?

We maintain a constant dialogue across Government, keeping all these things in view. Through the sustainable farming incentive we are making sure that we allow farmers to plant and be rewarded for planting nitrogen-fixing plants, for example, and that we are making the most of all the technology and innovation to help minimise inputs and keep control on those costs. We are doing that right across the Department.