Farming must have proper Whitehall oversight to tackle nitrates '˜timebomb' - MP Mary Creagh

An historic overuse of farming fertilisers containing high levels of nitrates has created a pollution '˜time-bomb' that the Government risks inadequately managing after next March, a cross-party parliamentary committee has claimed.

High levels of nitrates, used frequently in farming fertilisers, cause oxygen depletion in water.

Leaving the European Union presents the UK with a challenge to manage air and water quality, with the Environment Agency lacking the resources to ensure compliance with the existing rules, the Environmental Audit Committee said in a new report.

High levels of nitrates, used frequently in farming fertilisers, cause oxygen depletion in water which is harmful to humans and biodiversity. Their overuse in the past has led to a nitrate ‘time-bomb’ which is still working its way through into ground water sources – from which a large quantity of the nation’s drinking water is drawn.

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Nitrates are connected to wider nitrogen pollution because of the nitrogen cycle, including nitrogen oxides and ammonia, and these powerful air pollutants can raise acidity levels when deposited in water and soil.

For now, regulation of water and air quality is based on EU legislation, but the Environmental Audit Committee said it was concerned about “a governance gap”, whereby “zombie” EU legislation would be transposed into UK law but remain divorced from EU institutions that monitor, update, administer and ensure compliance.

If Britain is left with a poorly regulated and resourced regime, there would be a risk that farmers would be discouraged from complying if they see neighbours flout the rules without penalty.

The MPs want a new independent body, an Environmental Enforcement and Audit Office, to oversee and enforce compliance.

Wakefield MP Mary Creagh, who chairs the watchdog environmental committee, said: “One of the biggest sources of nitrate pollution is farming, through artificial fertilisers and animal waste getting into water supplies, as well as domestic and industrial sewage. Historic over use of artificial fertiliser has led to nitrate pollution in many of our groundwater sources, with some citing the threat of the so-called nitrate ‘timebomb’.

“If we are to deal effectively with the challenges nitrates pose to the environment, it is vital that, if Brexit happens, we do not end up with zombie legislation where EU laws apply but there is no oversight or governance.”

Ms Creagh said Brexit could be used to deliver a more joined-up approach to water and air quality rules but that any gains will only be sustainable if farmers are supported to invest in infrastructure and processes that reduce artificial fertiliser applications.

Ms Creagh’s committee makes a series of recommendations to the Government, including the need to demonstrate it has the resources to effectively enforce and oversee water and air quality regulations.

Whitehall should assess how future pressures, such as population growth and climate change, might impact upon air, water and soil quality, and should produce “robust” targets to underpin legally binding targets on water quality, the committee states in its report.

It calls for Government to ensure that greater use of anaerobic digestion to reduce nutrients leaching into water sources does not lead to higher ammonia emissions, and that regulations and regulators are “fully joined up” across agriculture, water and air quality – and that this is reflected in future agricultural payments based on the provision of ‘public goods’.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Protecting the environment is a clear priority for this government which is why we will bring forward the first Environment Bill in over 20 years to build on our vision to leave our precious environment in a better state than we found it.

“We have dedicated £400m to improve water quality. We are helping farmers improve their farming practices to reduce pollution, the Environment Agency assesses all our waters for levels of nitrate pollution and we set limits for fertiliser use in areas affected by nitrate pollution. We will respond to the committee in due course.”

The National Farmers’ Union said it would analyse the committee’s report.

James Copeland, the union’s regional environment and land use adviser, said: “In our evidence to the committee, we outlined the importance of nitrogen for food production and crop growth. Its use has reduced significantly in the past 25 to 30 years as a result of farmers adopting better practice and participation in voluntary initiatives.

“We continue to call on the government to help reduce nitrate loss through improvements to agri-environment schemes and reviewing the current regulatory framework, particularly the nitrates directive.”


Defra supports three projects that offer farmers advice to help them address pollution.

Under Catchment Sensitive Farming, farmers in priority areas can get free advice from CSF officers and support for Countryside Stewardship grants to help them implement improvements in farming practices and infrastructure.

A Catchment Based Approach has so far seen more than 100 catchment partnerships develop catchment plans to improve water quality, and the Farming Advice Service helps farmers meet regulatory requirements tied to support payments.