Working Group delivers report to help agri-food sector deal with ammonia

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The Expert Working Group on Sustainable Agricultural Land Management for Northern Ireland has produced a detailed document entitled ‘Making Ammonia Visible’ which aims to improve the understanding of ammonia within the local agriculture sector.

It is hoped this can be achieved through a partnership incorporating communication and education on ammonia, whilst implementing a range of ammonia mitigation measures; and not on contracting the size of the local agri-food sector.

The report confirms that agriculture is the dominant source of ammonia emissions in Northern Ireland, across the UK and throughout the world. Current inventory figures show that 12% of total UK ammonia emissions come from Northern Ireland.

This is disproportionate when compared to Northern Ireland’s population (3% of total UK) and land area (6% of total UK) as a result of the importance of agriculture to the Northern Ireland economy and our status as an exporter of high quality food produce.

Significantly 91% of all ammonia emissions in Northern Ireland in 2015 came from agriculture which demonstrates that the solutions for addressing the environmental impact of ammonia must come from agriculture.

With that the report has identified four distinct issues to be considered as Northern Ireland’s agriculture sector addresses ammonia:

1. How ammonia emissions are monitored and communicated – Making Ammonia

Emissions Visible;

2. How the evidence base is used to measure and control ammonia emissions –

Optimising the Evidence Base;

3. How ammonia emissions can be mitigated – Mitigating the Emissions;

4. How to achieve adoption of ammonia mitigation measures by farmers –

Achieving Behavioural Change.

The report also makes six recommendations DAERA should immediately adopt as guiding principles and approaches in assessing planning applications;

1. Communicate and explain the current planning process and requirements and the ammonia mitigation options available

2. Prioritise mitigating and reducing ammonia emissions at the Northern Ireland scale first, and at a local level secondly

3. Recognise total ammonia emission reduction measures being proposed by farmers and consider this when making a decision on their planning application

4. Minimise the risk of perverse incentivisation of farmers to choose smaller, less efficient ways of modernising in an effort to circumnavigate ammonia mitigation obligations

5. Accept that farmers who agree to reduce their total ammonia emissions from their current emission levels are not creating a new “adverse impact”

6. Facilitate access for applicants who are encountering difficulties in achieving approval for farm development due to the impact of ammonia emissions to the appropriate experts on ammonia mitigation options.

Further recommendations for farmers include applying slurry and manure earlier in the season, where land and weather conditions allow. If the farmer has a choice and where possible, slurry and manures should be spread in the early morning or evening, but not on warm, windy days. This will not only reduce ammonia loss, but also improve the efficiency of nitrogen use within the production system.

Accelerate the significant increase of the proportion of slurry and manures which is applied on land by dribble-bar, trailing shoe/hose, band spreader or shallow injection. Take steps to prohibit the sale of new slurry spreading equipment without low emission technologies by 2020 in preparation for a total ban on spreading slurry and manures by splashplate by 2025.

Farmers should recognise and embrace the benefits of brushing, scraping and washing livestock housing and handling areas and prioritise these tasks. As well as reducing ammonia emissions, this can produce significant reductions in animal lameness and associated production losses.

The Expert Working Group believes that the document makes a significant contribution to the task of setting a pathway to sustainable agriculture and offers a means of bringing ammonia under control whilst supporting a sustainable and expanding Northern Ireland agri-food industry in the medium to long term.

In conclusion, the document states: “We firmly believe that this approach will not only deliver for the environment but will also benefit our farmers and positively differentiate Northern Ireland food in the international marketplace. We are adamant that this document provides a coherent roadmap with mutually beneficially solutions to one of the greatest challenges faced by our agri-food sector and can be linked to our coherent plan for sustainable land management.

“By taking positive steps to transparently address ammonia, Northern Ireland agriculture can turn a potential problem into a competitive advantage.”

Commenting on the document, Dr John Gilliland OBE, who chaired the Expert Working Group, said the report has attempted to understand the science, the environmental and economic consequences, the regulatory imperative, and the resultant consequence on farm businesses.

He said: “Many of these businesses, without being previously educated and informed around the importance of ammonia, now find themselves on the wrong side of ammonia emissions, and their subsequent nitrogen deposition on some severely deteriorated Priority Habitats.

“The Expert Working Group has tried to layout, as transparently as possible, why we have found ourselves in such a position. It has made recommendations on how we should go forward in the medium to long term, and recommends to DAERA the use of six guiding principles and approaches to alleviate the acute pressure in the short term, until our knowledge on ammonia is further improved. It has been gratifying to see how so many of the solutions for ammonia fit so well with our recommendations on sustainable land management.

There is unanimity within the Expert Working Group that the sector can overcome the current problems with ammonia, and in the medium to long term, satisfy the joint need of bringing ammonia emissions from agriculture down to a level that lets an expanding sector deliver the ambition laid down in the “Going for Growth” report, while allowing our Priority Habitats to recover.”