Farmers must do more to reduce their huge contribution to ammonia air pollution
Farmers say they will work harder to tackle air pollution after new figures listed Norfolk and Suffolk among the nation’s biggest producers of potentially-harmful ammonia – despite recent reductions.
Data compiled by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) shows pig and poultry businesses in Norfolk emitted 1,156 tonnes of ammonia in 2017, the third highest county total behind Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire. Meanwhile Suffolk produced the fifth highest total of 616 tonnes.
The figures reflect the region' significant role in pig and poultry production, and the two counties have both bucked the national trend by reducing their ammonia emissions since 2015 - with Norfolk's total down by 16.9pc and Suffolk's down by 4.5pc.
But with farming estimated to be responsible for 88pc of the UK's ammonia pollution, farmers are being asked to do more.
Defra launched its Clean Air Strategy in January, which sets out what needs to be done to meet legally-binding international targets to cut air pollution, which Public Health England (PHE) says is the "largest environmental risk to public health in the UK".
Whereas most pollutants arise from industrial processes, such as burning fossil fuels, ammonia mainly comes from farming - the storage of manures and slurries and the spreading of inorganic fertilisers. It can be damaging to the environment and combine with other pollutants to form particulates which are harmful to human health.
Defra's strategy includes, for the first time, guidance on how farmers should tackle ammonia pollution, including a national code of good agricultural practice and requirements to invest in equipment to reduce emissions.
The National Farmers' Union (NFU) in East Anglia has welcomed the steps - and claims much has been achieved already.
"We take pride in our role as custodians of the countryside and this includes soil, air and water as well as landscape, biodiversity and food production," said the NFU's regional environment adviser Rob Wise. "Our industry has been working on cutting ammonia emissions long before the publication of this strategy, succeeding in cutting emissions by 10pc over the last 30 years while food and fibre production has continued to increase over that period."
Mr Wise said farmers had been leading the way in cutting emissions by hosting workshops, developing a code of good practice and working with organisations including Defra and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).
"Achieving reductions is difficult so it will take long term commitment from farmers," he said. "But given it represents increased business efficiency as well as environmental enhancement; farmers will continue to be up for the challenge."
The figures collated by TBIJ were self-reported by farmers to the Environment Agency. The majority of the 135 Norfolk sites on the list, and the 72 in Suffolk, are intensive poultry farms.
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Environmentalists have welcomed the industry's efforts to cut emissions and said further improvements could be achieved by working together.
Green Party Suffolk county councillor Andrew Stringer said: "Ammonia is incredibly toxic but it's also naturally occurring, so it's all about striking a balance.
"We need food to eat but we also need air to breathe. As emissions move further up the political agenda, we've got to have these conversations, but we don't want it to become a battleground between farmers and politicians."
Defra said while farming techniques had improved, more must be done to prevent further emissions damaging health and the environment.
"We are taking action to clean up our air through our ambitious Clean Air Strategy - tackling farm ammonia pollution for the first time by requiring and supporting farmers to invest in the infrastructure and equipment to reduce emissions," it said.
WHY IS AMMONIA A PROBLEM?
Ammonia is a pollutant released during the spreading of farm manures and slurries and the application of inorganic fertilisers.
Once released, it can lead to nitrogen enrichment and acidification of soil and water, as well as reacting with other greenhouse gases, such as sulphuric and nitric acid to form secondary pollutants.
These are associated with the main health impacts of ammonia, which can include chronic heart and breathing conditions.
Farmers can reduce ammonia emissions by changing practices around livestock and fertiliser.
Defra's Code of Good Agricultural Practice includes recommendations on keeping fertiliser covered and in well maintained stores, only spreading manure in the right conditions and devising plans for calculating when to apply manufactured fertiliser.
The code also advises farmers to consider using a professionally formulated diet for their livestock.
The Environment Agency said it required intensive farming operators to undertake "ammonia screening", looking at what needed to be done to protect nearby habitats, which can be adversely affected.
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