New Autumn landspreading restrictions pose ‘serious challenges to industry’

James Astor, Chairman, Regen Holdings Ltd, says the new restrictions on Autumn landspreading pose a ‘serious challenges to industry’.

Farmers, Food & Drink (F&D) businesses, and the Water Industry are grappling with the 2018 Farming Rules for Water (FRfW) legislation that has made the management of sixty million tonnes of organic material considerably more complicated – and expensive.

Successive UK Governments have been under pressure to improve the quality of our rivers. Increased levels of “diffuse pollution” have been linked to the over-application of nutrients on some farms. Nutrients (e.g. nitrates and phosphorus) not taken up by plants may migrate from the land into watercourses, resulting in eutrophication and oxygen depletion, which negatively impacts many river plant and animal species.

To reduce diffuse pollution, the Government introduced FRfW in 2018. This stipulates that organic materials should only be applied to land when there is a crop demand.  Crop demand is assessed with reference to the nutrient management guide RB209.

For some land managers, this is a statement of common sense, and may reflect their current practice. For others, and for those whose materials they landspread, it throws into doubt their continued operation.

With the autumn spreading window effectively closed, producers of organic material historically spread to land now need to provide 6 months storage – or find a treatment alternative. The volumes are significant.

Why? Slurries, digestates, manures, sludges and composts have all historically been spread to stubbles and grass in the Autumn. There is time post-harvest for the work to be done. The land is typically dry, and access (without damage to soil) is good. Materials applied can be quickly incorporated (as the Environment Agency encourages, to mitigate the risk of odour), and in advance of sowing. And this practice has maximised the availability of storage for materials over the winter when access to land would potentially be damaging.

However, the guidance in RB209 is that neither winter nor spring cereals require any nutrients until the spring. Some in the Environment Agency say that grass needs no nutrients after August, arguing that the mineralisation of soil organic matter is sufficient to meet the grass’s needs through the winter. That leaves OSR and linseed as the principal crops on which a limited autumn application is now allowed under FRfW.

But with the autumn spreading window effectively closed, producers of organic material historically spread to land now need to provide 6 months storage – or find a treatment alternative. The volumes are significant.

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) found that 50 million tonnes (MT) of farm manures, 1.9MT of compost, 4.3MT of commercial digestate and 3.5M biosolids are applied to land in England each year.

Bumpy landing

There are many examples of where the introduction of new legislation in a drive for higher standards has required that industry and consumers change practices and invest.

Good consultation practices, clear communications, and joined up thinking in Government make this easier. However, the 2016 consultation on FRfW failed to identify stakeholders who would be most impacted (e.g. the water, F&D and AD industries); and the planning system does not deliver in a timely manner, decisions that allow the construction of storage for waste and non-waste organic materials – mainly on account of opposition from local residents.

Moreover, mobilising millions of pounds of capital into new “enabling” infrastructure takes time.  It requires that the new regulation be clear, and fairly (but rigorously) enforced i.e. that “the playing field is level”.

In the case of FRfW, insufficient time has been allowed since the introduction of FRfW for infrastructure to be built; and interpretation and enforcement varies considerably by region.  It is consequently no surprise that potential funders (farmers, banks, shareholders) are reluctant to commit the capital required to comply.

The most powerful pushback has come from the livestock and water industries, and resulted in the publication this summer of Regulatory Position Statement (RPS) 252. This allowed sewage sludge, for example, to be spread to land in breach of FRfW this autumn so long as spreading did “not cause a pollution incident”.

However RPSs are time limited, and RPS252 expires in March 2022.  There will be pressure from some quarters for the RPS to be extended further, particularly on the back of the AHDB’s “Impact Assessment – FRfW”, which concluded that “the effective management of organic materials needs to consider the ‘balance or risks’ to the water, air and soil environments” of spreading at different times of year resulting from the inability to incorporate materials spread in the spring.

The Food & Drink Industry 

The F&D industry in particular generates significant volumes of organic wastes and by-products.  Some materials are processed into animal feed, others are taken to treatment (AD, rendering) and a significant quantity of organic waste liquids would historically have been spread to land.

Organic waste liquids are the challenge.

Many sites are not connected to the sewer, and are too far from the water companies to make disposal there an option (even if capacity was available).  Often low in dry matter, the liquids have low calorific value – so are not attractive to permitted AD plants.

Moreover, the AD industry has its own issues with storage; and turning low readily available nitrogen (RAN) liquids into high RAN digestates transfers, but does not eliminate, the storage infrastructure problem.

Our business has specialised in the management of liquid organic materials for the F&D industry for two decades.  Over the last three years, we have worked with our customers trying to help them develop alternative recycling or disposal plans.  Some have put in place their own on-site treatment or pre-treatment.

For others we have been able to divert their liquids from land to AD or wastewater treatment.  But these outlets have limited opening hours and can be very unreliable – where the F&D industry often works 24/7 and requires high service levels.

The result is that many F&D companies pursuing a compliant solution to their organic liquid waste management are having to adapt to a more expensive and less reliable solution, which will feed through into higher costs for consumers.

The next test of FRfW will come in the Spring, when a backlog of materials will need to be landspread in a short window.  The weather will be critical.  At this time of year, our children are wishing for a White Christmas. My mind, however, is focussed on the need for a dry February.

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