Farmers across the world began shunning fertiliser in late March as prices skyrocketed, so much so that now stockpiles are growing as prices fall. Will fertilisers find their way back onto the land?
English arable farmer Martin Lines, who’s also UK chair for the Nature Friendly Farming Network, says this is an ideal moment to plan a permanent switch – and the UK government should be helping.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the UK moving away from Common Agriculture Policy payments to farmers, and supply chain obstacles from Brexit, create ripe conditions for giving up the stuff.
“Now there’s a focus on not demanding subsidies for fertilisers, instead, demanding additional information and support from government to get off them, and other inputs, like pesticides. Lots of pesticides are fossil fuel-based, which underlines the problems we are facing.
“There are many farmers who have already moved away from them or are on a journey to do that.”
Russia is the world’s biggest natural-gas exporter and its second-biggest oil exporter, so the war is costing farmers dearly when it comes to machinery needs.
“If you just stop, there are consequences because your your soil is addicted to the inputs”
It’s also the biggest exporter of nitrogen-based fertilisers, which use natural gas; the second biggest exporter of potash; and the third biggest of phosphates. Because pesticides and herbicides are often made from hydrocarbons, they have also gone up in price.
The Green Markets North American weekly fertiliser price index shows prices are down by 35 per cent since late March, but farmers are yet to start buying again in big numbers.
“If you just stop, there are consequences because your landscape, your soil has been addicted to the inputs,” Martin Lines cautions.
“It’s not about going cold turkey – industry will say that’s risking our food supply.
“What we can clearly demonstrate, though, is that transitioning, with very few inputs, can still produce enough food.
“Over half of what we produce if not two thirds, doesn’t feed people anyway. Sixty per cent of our grains go to livestock – 120,000 hectares of maize. So, any argument around food security and increased production is the wrong way around.
“Farmers need to find new varieties that work with the soil as it is now”
“As farmers we need to concentrate on producing nutritious food for people that they can identify with, so they can buy the right options and also live in a healthy landscape. The two go together.
“It’s brave if you can go cold turkey, but most of us have got bills to pay. And for most farmers, the varieties they are currently growing are addicted to fertilisers. They need to find new varieties that work with the soil as it is now.
“In terms of risk versus cost reduction, I know what my fixed costs are. I know what I need to generate. If I stand still, I’ve still got costs. So, what do I need to generate to cover those costs? And then I’ve got to cover the variable costs that come in.
“If I increase inputs like fertilisers and pesticides, I’ve got to cover that input and the machinery it needs. And then add profit on top. I need to calculate my maximum sustainable output and ask, where is my sweet spot in the pendulum?
“The answer is developing a more diverse cropping system and landscape approach, so I don’t lose half my yield because half my crop’s gone.
“Farmers need to ask themselves how many different crops they can grow, that breaks up the risk. If I’ve got two thirds of my farm in winter wheat and the yield drops off, I’ve lost two thirds of my output.
“We map the fields, if there’s loads of fertility, why the heck would we put fertiliser on?”
“As we diversify the cropping, we diversify the risk, those crops need less inputs and build more fertility up, so it balances out the risk going onwards.
“But going cold turkey on the other hand is very challenging. Instead, on my farm we’ve used soil health, grazing, cover crops, organic manure to boost the biology and nutrients of the soil.
“We map each field. I use data and science to test the soil, test the crops, I use satellite imagery. So, if there’s loads of fertility in the soil, why the heck would we need to put loads of fertiliser on? Also, we look for crop varieties that can use the nutrients in the soil in a different way.
“If you go cold turkey, you’re going to come unstuck because your yield drops like anything, usually your weeds will then become stronger and you’re in a pickle.
“But there are financial options within stewardships and government finance packages to help you on your journey. So, you could put half your farm or a third of your farm into a herbal ley.
“Now that’s cut your inputs instantly. Leave it in for two to three years and it builds your fertility it up and there’s loads of things you can do with that soil. You can change your rotation, do more spring cropping, add some more cover crops in – make sure you put the legumes, the clovers and so on in. You can plan it through.”
“We shouldn’t be saying I must have my sugar so let’s kills the bees”
“We eat too much sugar. The sugar we’re producing in the UK now – because of climate change – is having aphid problems which requires the use of neonicotinoids. We need to be growing the right crops in the right places.
“We shouldn’t be saying ‘oh well I must have my sugar so let’s kills the bees’. We may need to be bold enough to accept that we’re not going to use a product, that we’re going to have a lower yield. We shouldn’t destroy our landscape for business as usual.”
In theory, a crop from Martin Lines’s farm, not dependant on Russian inputs, could be considered more ethical. But there’s no way for Martin to express that to consumers. It’s one of reasons he belongs to a consortium of 40 organisations pressing the government for mandatory sustainability labelling on food.
Although the UK’s recent Food Policy white paper was disappointing for almost all in the food system, there was a commitment to developing data transparency and mandatory sustainability labelling. Creating the infrastructure for for this is vital, Martin Lines says.
“Right now, you cannot identify my wheat, that’s had no insecticide, as it goes into a loaf of bread,” he explains. “There’s no way of distinguishing the different qualities of farming and production. My wheat is just dumped in with the rest.
“Consumers care but they don’t always make the right choices. We need to clearly identify the impact a food choice is having for biodiversity, climate and society, as in slave labour, all the things that we should care about.
“A clear consumer choice will drive my market and shrink the destructive markets”
“I would welcome a price differential, but it’s more important to me that the consumer knows the difference and has a clear choice.
“That will drive my market and shrink the destructive markets. Currently as a farmer I can do exactly what I want to this landscape, even if I do things that are really bad, there’s not a lot that’s going to happen to me.
“As a farmer, if there’s not the market, if there’s no distinction, why do it? I know my wheat goes in the same heap as my other neighbours who may have sprayed glyphosate very close to harvest or done other things that I completely disagree with in managing the landscape. But I get no recognition for what I do.
“Consumers care. We’ve just got to help them.
“I use social media to communicate what we’re doing, but there’s no marketplace for it yet. Unless I sell direct on a very small scale, I am growing a commodity that gets lost in a system.
“I could go to some of the smaller mills and connect them to the supply of my good wheat – so they can tell their consumers about the distinction between wheat that has been grown sustainably and wheat that hasn’t. But we need mandatory labelling to make that work.
“Biodiversity, society and human health are the three legs of a stool we pivot on”
“When you grow more this way, the big brands will come onboard. We’ve recently seen Nestlé saying that all their shredded wheat will come from regenerative farming systems as of next year. They are recognising there is a consumer for this.
“But what do they define as regenerative? Is it just a word or do they have an action plan that demonstrates the positive effect we can have?
“The recent white paper and recognition of mandatory labelling is a huge opportunity. I always ask about, One: biodiversity and climate mitigation; Two: Society and Three: human health. They are the three legs of a stool we pivot on at the moment. You take one of the legs off or cut it short and you’ll fall over.
“Regarding government support, everyone’s talking as though we’re now in Environmental Land Management Schemes (Elms), the UK’s Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) has gone, but it hasn’t. It’s not going until 2027. They’ve got to do this messy swap over.
“We need clear links in food strategy, the environment strategy, public money for public goods, the climate strategy. Hopefully some of the answers will be in the upcoming land use strategy.
“We’ve only had a little bit of BPS taken off so far. So, they can only offer us a bit of Elms.
“What farmers need from government is knowledge transfer from exemplar farms”
“But what about other priorities? I can sell the carbon now off my arable land and trees and hedgerows. It’s a very free market with no rules and regulations.
“We are mapping our natural capital for 2023, when biodiversity net gain comes in. We will be targeting the corporate market, the private sector, so that if industry needs need some trees or hedgerows or wildflower meadows or margins, we’ll deliver that.
“What farmers need from government is knowledge transfer from exemplar farms, progressing development training. They need a clear communication plan that shows how positive environmental outputs will be rewarded in the future, underpinning healthy production.
“Government needs to show how farmers can support healthy soil that captures more carbon and is more biodiverse. Food and the environment are not two separate concerns. We need carbon and biodiversity taxation systems that cause positive outcomes.
“If you’re causing harm somewhere to biodiversity, society or carbon, you should be paying a cost. There’s lots of damage that’s not being recognised in the cost of the product. That goes back to labelling, the measuring and matrix. There should be a levying charge.
“The biggest thing I’ve got a concern about is the Genetic Engineering framework bill because they are looking for a simple, unregulated technology solutions that don’t recognise nature can do most of the work itself.
“We recognise food products are harming the environment, so why is there not a polluter pays principle?”
“We’re trying to use sexy science in fancy language for quick wins that will have unintended consequences in the future. Because we won’t know in 20 or 30 years what the real damage is to our environment.
“We recognise many food products are harming the environment, so why is there not some polluter pays principle? Then you can label your loaf of bread to say it was made via damaging impacts.
“The cash that’s in the industry coming from corporates to sell their products, is driving farmers to do things that aren’t necessarily right.
“The tests, trials and results that we see are funded by corporates to promote their products.
“I know that in some trialling systems good results that don’t back up what the trial’s sponsor wants get lost – dropped off the matrix.
“We are only sold on the findings that promote their products and this way are experiencing huge pressure to do harmful things in green language.
“We must also reflect on the amount of waste we currently have – 40 per cent or so on farm A lot of waste is not recorded on the farm. The supply chain records their piece. But it’s not being recorded when they decline produce and tell the farmer to destroy it.
“We need a government system recording waste on the farm from the moment of planting through to the far end. There should be accountability all the way through.
“If you’re driving markets that create waste that’s bonkers. I was talking to a parsnip grower who was bringing in 14 tonnes of parsnips in every trailer – in which only two to three tonnes were to be used for food. They grade everything else out.”
Nature Friendly Farming has launched a campaign urging government to re-think food production, via improved land use.