The European Commission is putting pressure on Defra to designate virtually the whole of England as a nitrate vulnerable zone (NVZ) next year, according to Farming Minister George Eustice.
Following an extension in 2013, NVZs currently cover 58 per cent of England, imposing restrictions on farmers in relation to the spreading and storage of manure.
It is a statutory requirement for NVZs to be reviewed every four years and Defra is set to publish a consultation on proposed new areas this summer followed by a consultation on the rules associated with NVZs in the autumn.
The new NVZ areas and rules in England are due to come into effect in early 2017.
Mr Eustice said European Commission officials were putting pressure on the Government to designate large new areas of England as NVZs or even the entire country, in order to fully comply with the Nitrates Directive.
About 12 years ago, Ireland took the decision to designate the whole country as an NVZ, after it and France faced Brussels infraction proceedings over its implementation of the directive, which aims to protect watercourses from nitrate run-off from farms.
Mr Eustice said England was now under pressure to do something similar.
Mr Eustice, a prominent Brexit campaigner, said the pressure from Brussels reinforce his argument UK farmers would be better off voting to leave the EU on June 23.
He said the Nitrates Directive was ’outdated’ and should be replaced by a ’more holistic approach to promoting improved water quality based on a catchment approach and incentivised through payments to farmers in a new UK agriculture policy’.
The Farming Minister said, "If we remain locked in the EU, farmers are exposed to unpredictable risks of new regulation. The EU are piling on the pressure to force us to subject more farmers to the clunky rules required under NVZs and this could hit farmers hard."
NVZs were introduced in response to the EU requirement to reduce the nitrate levels in drinking water to a maximum of 50 mg/l.
They covered areas of land identified as exceeding or being at risk of exceeding 50 mg NO3/l.
But Mr Eustice said our scientific understanding of water courses and the causes of eutrophication has advanced beyond this ’blunt instrument’ over the past twenty years.
He said: "We now know that Nitrogen is not the main driver of eutrophication but that phosphate is a far more damaging pollutant than first realised. But we are stuck with the outdated requirements of the Nitrates Directive."
Defra, which is visibly campaigning on the ‘remain’ side of the referendum debate, acknowledged the Commission was ‘keen to see more’ NVZs designated but a spokesman insisted the Department would make its own decisions.
He said: “Reducing nitrate losses is a priority both in improving farm productivity and water quality.
"We are currently reviewing the areas that qualify as nitrate vulnerable zones and decisions will continue to be based on our own scientific evidence.”
A consultation on extending NVZs in Wales, which had been due out this spring has been put on hold until after the EU referendum.
It is is likely to propose a significant increase in the Welsh NVZ area from the current figure of below 3 per cent, with Pembrokeshire in particular likely to be hit.
Farmers Union of Wales senior policy officer Hazel Wright has warned of the ‘severe repercussions’ of extending NVZ designation and said it was vital farmers were given sufficient time to appeal against any new designations.
NFU Cymru president Stephen James has called new Welsh Environment and Rural Affairs Secretary Lesley Griffiths to commit to ‘no gold-plating’ of the Nitrates Directive in Wales.
George Eustice claims Brussels wants to force Defra to turn virtually the whole of England into an NVZ, or at least a big extra chunk of it.
There is truth in the fact the Commission is pushing for more of England to be designated to fill what it sees as gaps in compliance with the Nitrates Directive.
But, according to Defra sources, while there were likely to be new areas, this will not amount to the whole of the country.
Defra said it would make the final decision based on its own scientific evidence