The chair of an influential House of Commons committee has written to the Environment Agency (EA) seeking an urgent review of the effective ban on most autumn manure applications on farms in England.

Neil Parish, chairman of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee, has asked the EA to review its interpretation of rules on the spreading of organic manure by farmers in the autumn.

Under the agency’s present interpretation of the rules, farmers and land managers who want to apply organic fertiliser in the autumn for a spring crop must inform the EA that they have broken the law.

See also: Video: Farmer demands clarity on autumn muckspreading ban

In a letter to EA chief executive James Bevan, Mr Parish stresses that the responsible application of organic manure in autumn is a well-established part of good soil management, as reflected in the AHDB’s Nutrient Management Guide.

This approach, Mr Parish states, ensures that nitrogen applied in the autumn will be available to the crop the following spring, thus reducing air pollution by incorporating biosolids into the soil immediately after they are spread.

“It is not possible to incorporate organic fertiliser into the soil in spring as it will destroy the crop,” Mr Parish notes.

In addition, farmers who are prevented from using organic fertiliser will likely use artificial fertiliser instead, which has a higher carbon footprint and runs counter to the government’s carbon net-zero ambitions – and its commitment to reduce ammonia emissions by 16% by 2030.

Farmers ‘penalised’

Mr Parish says the Efra committee supports the EA’s aim of reducing agricultural pollution but is concerned that its current interpretation of the regulations was “disproportionate” and it “penalised farmers who follow the rules while not doing enough to stop bad practice by those who did not”.

In August, the EA published new guidance for farms in England on the spreading of organic manures in the autumn. Under Rule 1 of the Farming Rules for Water, and the accompanying regulatory position statement RPS 252, farmers will have to justify why they need to apply organic manures in the autumn.

The new rules effectively make it impossible to apply manures, biosolids or digestate ahead of arable crops – unless they are being applied to grass, ahead of oilseed rape, or where a derogation has been agreed.

The EA’s view is that applying organic manures in the autumn carries a pollution risk of nitrates and phosphate entering watercourses and that generally, nitrogen is not required by crops ahead of sowing a winter cereal.

Speaking at an NFU fringe event at the Conservative party conference in Manchester in October, Defra secretary George Eustice set out Defra’s goals on reducing nitrous oxide pollution caused principally by the application of mineral fertilisers on farms.

“We need to support the technology in how we can develop better use of organic-based fertilisers, based on manures or others, and actually move away over time on mineral fertilisers,” said the minister.

“There is a way of doing this and it’s a piece of research that we are going to support because it’s crucial for us to also hit some of those greenhouse gas targets.”

NFU lobbying

When pressed by Merseyside arable farmer Olly Harrison about why the EA had stopped autumn muckspreading, Mr Eustice admitted there was sometimes conflict between government departments and “different agendas that we have to resolve”.

But he added: “We will not hit our greenhouse gas emission reductions unless we do something quite significant on fertiliser use and that does require us to really focus on organic fertilisers over mineral fertilisers.”

The NFU is pushing the agency for a “more nuanced interpretation” of the Farming Rules for Water and to identify outcomes that work  for both farmers and the environment.