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Farming Rules for Water

Volume 815: debated on Monday 1 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the application of the Farming Rules for Water on the use of organic forms of nitrogen in (1) the autumn, and (2) the spring; and in particular, the implications of using organic manure, slurries and biowastes on ammonia and phosphate levels at different points of the year.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and, at the same time, declare my interests as a farmer.

My Lords, some agricultural activities can be harmful to the water environment, which is why it is essential that farmers follow the farming rules for water and apply only the nutrients needed to feed their crops. Cropping patterns change from year to year, so the amount of nutrients needed will vary. Provided farmers follow the rules and related best practice, manures may be used safely at any time.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. However, while his response is welcome, key areas of uncertainty remain. There is a reluctance by the Environment Agency to discuss the interpretation of rule 1. Farmers need to know what compliance with rule 1 means in practice: what soil and what the crop need is, when it can be satisfied and how pollution risk is judged. Farmers are struggling to make sense of the Environment Agency’s regulatory position statement. Please can the Minister either instruct the Environment Agency to retract the RPS or provide far greater clarity to farmers?

I am sure the noble Lord will agree that there is a problem here, with watercourses and rivers affected by a variety of different pollutants, some of them from farmland. The Code of Good Agricultural Practice, going back to 1985, was the basis of the rule that now applies. We understand that it is challenging for farmers and are working closely to achieve clarity. The Minister for Agriculture, my friend Victoria Prentis, has set up a working group with the NFU, the Environment Agency and others. It is seeking to iron out these problems urgently so that, from next year, farmers will be much clearer on how to apply the rule.

Have the Government considered using a risk-based approach to the autumn application of organic material? This would allow continued application of such organic material in the autumn on arable land where the risk to water is considered low, rather than the current blanket ban. It would also assist to reduce the requirement for artificial fertilisers and the environmental costs associated with their manufacture.

I will discuss my noble friend’s suggestion with the Farming Minister. Life is quite complicated for farmers at the moment. If we start trying to map the country in terms of how we allow different levels of manures to be applied, there may be a further problem—but I take his point, which is well made.

My Lords, the National Pig Association has warned that the Environment Agency’s long-awaited statement on the farming rules for water could have significant impacts on pig and arable producers. Many pig producers will not be able to comply with some of the conditions, such as preventing application on sandy or shallow soil. Discussions have taken place between the EA and the NPA, providing clarity that will resolve the issue for only some producers and for only this growing season. There is concern that the majority of producers will still not be able to use the RPS. Would the Minister care to comment?

I would. The noble Baroness makes an important point in relation to some pig farmers, but we want to make sure we are cleaning up our rivers. That means working with farmers to find a sensible system of rules that apply long-established good farming practice so that manures are applied only to crops that will take up those nutrients and none will leach through into catchments or river courses.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the advisory board of River Action. Does my noble friend agree that we have a serious problem in our rivers, and that pollution from farming is part of it? You have only to look at the River Wye and what has happened there. While we need to help farmers to comply, is there not a real urgency about cleaning up our rivers?

My noble friend is absolutely right. We should see the fact that only a very small percentage of our rivers are fully functioning ecological systems as something of a national disgrace. We have spent many hours debating the Environment Bill here and are moving to a much better place—but we can do much more, working with the farming community and recognising that it is only part of the problem and that there are other polluters as well. We want to make sure that we are abiding by our commitments to get our rivers in good ecological state in a very short space of time.

Clearly, sorting out pollution in our rivers is absolutely critical. As the Minister said, we have talked about this time and again on the Agriculture Act and the Environment Bill. My understanding is that a statutory review of the regulations was undertaken by Defra at the turn of the year and was due to report last April, but we have not seen this yet. Can the Minister explain the delay and when we are likely to see it? He mentioned the working group. Is this something that the working group will look at and report on?

The noble Baroness is perhaps referring to the amount of money the Government had said they would put into the transition scheme to assist farmers in changing their system to invest in better slurry systems. After consultation with the farmers, it has been decided to do that in a different way. We have the incentive fund, which is there for farmers to access, but they have said that they want the money spent on environmental measures to be looked at much more holistically across the whole farm, and that is what we are doing.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the real emergency is giving farmers, particularly organic and livestock producers, clear and simple rules to follow? Is it not true that we simply do not know what the safe level of nutrients in the soil should be, so there should be no change to the rules or the regulatory policy statements until we have the science on which to base them?

We do have a lot of science on this. If we were to indulge in many years of further scientific investigation, it would be too late for certain rivers, which—I am using strong words here—will be ecologically dead if we do not take action. The rules are there and they have been set out in the code for good agricultural practice since 1985. We are working with farmers to make sure that we apply them proportionately and to assist them in changing their businesses to deal with what is a very real and present problem.

When will the Government be as tough on water and sewerage companies as they are on farmers? They seem to be very firm on the rules for farmers, yet last week, in a vote in the other place, they were quite happy to turn a blind eye to the sewage discharges of water companies that have been going on for 30 years. When will the Government be tough on water companies and their sewage discharges?

If I may say so, I think the noble Baroness is being unkind to the Environment Bill. It sets out many measures that will stop the current releases, which have been going on for decades, even centuries. We have probably one of the most advanced pieces of environmental legislation anywhere in the world. Is it enough? No, because we have to work across a great many other areas, including dealing with the problem from farming and other polluters.