In the Clean Air Strategy, the Secretary of State and Government are consulting on some very ambitious targets which could potentially have far reaching impacts for energy, transport and households. But it could well be agriculture and the most important service it provides – food production – which really feels the brunt of the proposals.
It is clear that the Government is missing the clean air targets it has signed up to and as it has cast its eye around the culprits it appears that agriculture and particularly urea fertiliser is to provide it with a quick fix. We can’t deny that nearly 90% of ammonia emissions are from agriculture so there is no hiding when it comes to this part of the Clean Air Strategy.
When one thinks about ammonia it is clearly intensive livestock production that first comes into the spotlight. I know that there are huge concerns about the implications for the livestock sector with covered lagoons, injection of slurry and even potentially scrubbing of air becoming compulsory. Many of the changes that need to be made in these sectors will take years of implementation and although they will provide part of the long-term solution, they won’t give the immediate results the Government needs to see.
Out of the 88% of ammonia emissions coming from agriculture it is calculated that 23% come from the use of urea fertiliser. One of the current proposals is to ban the use of untreated urea fertilisers. On paper this may well provide a solution but the implications for the fertiliser market and the impact this could have on cost of production for arable farmers is something that really concerns me.
We are already worried about the lack of transparency in the ammonium nitrate (AN) market and without the competition and transparency provided by urea, which is a globally traded commodity, we would have even more cause for concern. The treated urea products are generally priced at a discount to AN rather than ‘urea + cost’ so they don’t aid the market transparency.
I also worry about the unintended consequences of a ban on urea fertiliser. I would suggest that many growers who use urea currently use it early in the season when it is less likely to volatilise, and may then switch to AN later in the season which provides the best of both worlds. If there were a wholesale change into AN then in a wet spring we could potentially see a problem with increased nitrates in water as it is more prone to leaching than urea, which would then bring AN use into the spotlight.
When we look at the risk factors of using urea there surely has to be a pragmatic approach based around when urea is most likely to volatilise. I’m sure that one of the parameters in that calculation is soil temperature, so it could well be that we can use urea until a set calendar date when, on average, soil temperatures reach this level.
We also have to remember that urea is widely used around the world. Are we once again going to put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage – increasing costs in the UK – while continuing to import raw ingredients and food from other parts of the world that haven’t so stringently implemented their clean air targets?