This post first appeared online at on the 11th December 2017

A few days ago, I suggested that a tax on nitrogen might be a practical way to address some environmental issues. Of course, this would increase farm production costs in a trading environment where the cost is unlikely to be passed onto the consumer. Hardly satisfactory.

Further, there is also concern about recent rises in nitrogen prices, albeit they are coming off a 2016/17 low that was 20% or so under the 2011/15 average. There also remains concerns among farmers that prices are already higher due to tariffs on imports into the EU and the heavy trading weight of the few manufacturers operating within the market.

To take a broader view, looking forwards, given the reliance of the artificial nitrogen manufacturing process on limited supplies of natural gas, even if fracking is used more extensively, and the unacceptability of extracting further fossil fuels, one should plan for ongoing price increases. It is, therefore, likely that market mechanisms will start to restrict usage, thus making a tax unnecessary.

Beyond a likely increase in cost, there are other reasons to look to reduce artificial nitrogen usage. In terms of nutrients, Ireland now imports between 300,000 and 350,000 tonnes of nitrogen a year. This equates to just over a million tonnes of nitrogen-containing fertilizers. In addition to the financial cost, which should still be returned as enhanced farm output], there are question marks over GHG emissions from manufacturing and spreading nitrogen fertilizers and nitrate leakage into acquirers, rivers, lakes and, ultimately, our drinking water supplies.

Notwithstanding dedicated organic production, one recognizes that tillage cropping is difficult without artificial nitrogen. A move to rotations that include nitrogen-fixing pulses can help reduce total rotational N requirements; albeit the pulses only leave a residual of 40kg/N/ha or so for the succeeding cereal crop.  Using less nitrogen will mean it again becomes all about soil fertility building. Hence, one is beginning to read more about returning rotational leys and grazing livestock to tillage land, but maintaining yields will be difficult. Ultimately, it will come down to obtaining an enhanced value for the produce that relates to the eco-friendliness of the farming system employed [as with certified organic] and which is paid for by the final consumer.

In these days of poor tillage profitability, restricting nitrogen usage without any value-added will make little sense to the farmer. There should, however, be opportunities for Irish tillage farmers to provide the raw materials for livestock farmers who produce higher-value, ‘eco-friendly’ products [not least with respect to growing protein crops] but it depends on the products and routes to markets existing. Both must be developed further in Ireland. As time goes on, it is unlikely that Irish tillage farming will make sense if it produces only generic animal feed that competes head on with imports from large-scale, international producers. Restricted nitrogen usage will only make it worse.

If one is willing to look at the research being done into using clovers and multi-species swards [as per] there may be greater opportunities to reduce grassland nitrogen usage without compromising production or financial returns. Where there is a focus on utilizing a long-growing season one does, nevertheless, appreciate that more work needs to be done to ensure the length of the grazing season. That said, one wonders if early season grazing may also fall foul of regulations to minimize nitrate seepage from grazing pastures at the very start of Spring. Simply, nitrate pollution, in its various forms, will inevitably impact upon the operation of current farming systems.

Potentially, the nitrates issue may mean that Irish dairy farmers must move away from intensive near-grass-only systems. One already reads that New Zealand is being forced into a rethink. It will not be easy because what nay appear as a simple change has manifold impacts upon the farm business, investment decisions and the returns needed to provide economic viability. As with tillage, a shortfall in Ireland relates to not having supply chains that can reward the farmer for changing to farming systems that provide consumers with multiple benefits that go beyond food provision alone.

Ultimately, reducing nitrogen usage must go together with fully independent, thus publicly-funded, research. The research will be into developing farming systems that use less nitrogen and into those precision farming techniques which improve the efficiency of what nitrogen is applied.

Hence, the proposal is that the farming organisations should establish year-on-year targets to voluntarily reduce artificial nitrogen usage across the industry. By doing so they will:

  • address any trading imbalances that are increasing nitrogen fertilizer prices for Irish farmers
  • focus farmers and researchers on husbandry techniques that are under the farmer’s control
  • replace imported to the farm and country costs with ‘localized’ costs and management skills
  • target the significant GHG emissions sustained when applying and manufacturing artificial N
  • minimize the risks to aquifers, rivers, lakes, seas and drinking waters from nitrogen seepage
  • enhance the chances for flora and fauna through establishing more species-diverse pastures
  • improve the above and below ground tillage farming environments by diversifying cropping
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