DEFRA to start slow on diffuse agricultural pollution

A new stage in the long drawn out process to develop policies to tackle diffuse pollution from agriculture was launched by the Environment Department on 17 June with a consultation paper on "catchment-sensitive farming".1 New studies have shown that waters in at least 70% of England are at risk from diffuse farm pollution, but DEFRA is still aiming to defer the toughest control measures until after 2012 - leaving the UK exposed to a potential clash with the European Commission.

DEFRA has already consulted several times on diffuse farm pollution, and it is not done yet. The two main events so far have been a discussion document in June 2002 - notable for the first official acknowledgement that eutrophication is widespread in Britain (ENDS Report 330, pp 46-47 ) - and a strategic review in April 2003 outlining the main possible approaches to tackling diffuse pollution (ENDS Report 340, pp 51-52 ).

In between there were two consultations on implementation of the EU water framework Directive, which first set out plans for introducing broad new powers to regulate agricultural diffuse pollution by the end of 2003 - and then scrapped the idea. There was also a response to a parliamentary inquiry on the Directive in which DEFRA promised to prepare an action plan on diffuse pollution by the end of 2003/04 - a commitment it failed to honour.

DEFRA now says it will consult on a detailed action plan in the light of responses to the current consultation, which ends in September. On recent performance, that further consultation will not take place until 2005, and the earliest action stemming from this long series of consultations will not come until late in 2005 at best.

This all makes DEFRA's claim that the new paper "concerns action to promote catchment-sensitive farming over the next five to six years, before specific action is required in implementation of the water framework Directive," seem something of a fiction. Moreover, a strong case can be made that the Directive requires stringent measures to curb diffuse pollution from agriculture more than any other source as a matter of urgency (see below).

The official effort to characterise the impact of diffuse farm pollution is far from complete, but is yielding further significant insights.

Agriculture is now believed to account for 70% of nitrogen and 50% of phosphorus inputs to UK waters, as well as for most silt pollution. The Environment Agency and English Nature have been mapping how these inputs affect the aquatic environment, and a report published alongside the consultation claims to provide the first estimate of the national scale of the problem.2According to the report, no less than 70% of England is at medium or high risk of diffuse agricultural pollution. Meanwhile, a new study for the Agency which reviewed the status of 5,710 English lakes of more than one hectare has found that a massive 88% are at risk of exceeding phosphorus targets likely to be set under the water framework Directive.

A separate study by English Nature which involved screening 229 designated aquatic wildlife sites thought to be at risk from agricultural diffuse pollution identified a sub-set of 105 sites requiring priority action.3According to English Nature, the findings "clearly indicate that diffuse agricultural pollution is of widespread concern in England, with 72 of 156 (46%) of English river catchments containing designated wetland sites considered to be impacted by or at risk from diffuse agricultural pollution."

It is in catchments hosting some or all of the 105 priority wildlife sites that the most forceful action to curb diffuse pollution is now likely to be taken over the next few years.

Last year's consultation paper proposed a twin-track approach, with national measures to promote more sustainable farming being accompanied by targeted measures in priority catchments - especially those containing Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

The Government has a commitment to get 95% of SSSIs into favourable condition by 2010, but is a long way short of this for aquatic SSSIs. In March 2003, only 31% of river and stream SSSIs, 69% of standing waters and 65% of fens, marshes and swamps were in favourable condition. The Government says it is "currently minded" to begin "any" targeted action on diffuse pollution in the priority catchments identified by English Nature.

Taking things on only a little further from last year's consultation, the paper identifies four broad approaches to tackling diffuse farm pollution:

  • Existing policies, late regulation: This approach would rely on current reforms of agricultural policy to deliver some improvements in water quality before "programmes of measures" under the water framework Directive must be made operational in 2012.

    This would leave just three years to meet the Directive's key target for water quality to be improved to "good ecological status", and several of the Government's environmental targets would almost certainly be missed. Farmers would face high costs over a short period.

    Although the option is on the face of it consistent with the Government's policy to avoid gold

  • Early regulation: Introducing basic regulations early and then phasing in more stringent requirements would give farmers more time to adjust and enable new approaches to be tested in pilot catchments, the paper points out.

    A mix of national, area-based and targeted regulation is envisaged. National rules could set common standards, ban "high pollution risk" crops in sensitive catchments, prescribe land uses along rivers, require farm plans, establish licensing systems for intensive sectors, or impose limits on pollutant levels in farm inputs - such as nitrogen or phosphorus levels in animal feed.

    Area-based regulation would allow standards to be varied according to local conditions, perhaps at the level of river basins.

    Licence conditions or works notices could be used to deliver targeted regulation at the level of individual farms or fields to control land use, require infrastructure upgrading, or restrict the use of agrochemicals.

  • Support: The paper says that a wholly regulatory approach would not win farmer support. The Government wants the emphasis to be on working with farmers, and on an "initial appraisal" it believes that a combination of voluntary action, targeted advice from catchment officers, and, possibly, financial aid "has the scope to be an efficient and cost-effective way" of delivering early targets and putting farmers in a good position to meet the water framework Directive's requirements from around 2012.

    DEFRA appears to have wrested an important concession from the Treasury on the issue of financial aid. The paper, written jointly with the Treasury, says that "any package to effectively tackle diffuse pollution...needs to be capable of delivering high cost changes that farmers may be unable to undertake on their own, as well as lower cost ones."

  • Economic instruments: The only instruments apparently up for consideration are environmental levies, and of these a variable levy on nutrient surpluses, as applied in the Netherlands, seems to have been ruled out on grounds of complexity and high transaction cost.

    The remaining candidates are levies on inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides and animal feeds, of which there is some experience elsewhere in Europe. The revenues could be used for farmer support initiatives and grant aid.

    Overall, the Government says it is "minded" to pursue some early action, perhaps using a combination of regulation, voluntary action and an economic instrument. But it still seems set on holding back the toughest restrictions until 2012 - leaving the presumption against gold plating largely intact.

    There is, however, a powerful legal and practical argument against delaying the full spectrum of action until 2012, and it is actually made in the consultation paper itself, but with no follow-through.

    The water framework Directive, the paper notes, "sets out the latest dates for taking action and achieving outcomes rather than introduction dates. Due to the natural processes of pollutant retention and transportation within soils and river systems, it is likely to take a considerable time for changes in farm practices to translate into improved water status. Early action would therefore improve our chances of delivering good water status in catchments by 2015."

    Conversely, a strategy which leaves the stiffest measures until very late in the day will guarantee that good status will not be delivered in many catchments by 2015 - and that could lead the UK into serious conflict with the European Commission.

    Today's Ministers, of course, will have long since gone by then, and someone else will have to wrestle with the Directive's implications for rural land use. The consultation paper does not spell these out, but supporting research papers make it clear that reductions in nutrient discharges from farmland will sometimes need to be very large for the Directive's water quality objectives to be met, entailing ceilings on livestock densities, bans on phosphate fertiliser, and even taking farmland out of production in sensitive catchments.

    Absent from the paper is any mention of the desirability of restoration works in lakes and slow-flowing waters, where recovery from elevated nutrient inputs may take decades without removal or immobilisation of phosphorus-rich sediments and manipulation of the aquatic ecosystem. Such works will cost money, and it may again be a choice between missing national or EU targets and taxing agrochemicals to create a restoration fund.

    English Nature and the Environment Agency both welcomed the paper but urged the Government to get a move on, with initial measures such as improved advice and grant aid being put in place by next year.

    English Nature's chief executive, Dr Andy Brown, commented: "It is vital that the additional funding is secured as quickly as possible, not least because the UK agri-environment budget is far too small to meet a wide range of government environmental objectives. In the light of this, Government should consider charges on the agricultural use of nutrients, such as fertilisers and animal feeds, with the revenue generated fed back into the strategic programme of action."