HC Deb 19 January 1989 vol 145 cc472-3
6. Mr. Gareth Wardell

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what was the number of incidents of river pollution caused by nitrates in the last year.

Mr. Ryder

Information for 1988 is not yet available. In 1987 mineral fertilisers caused 18 incidents.

Mr. Wardell

In view of the Prime Minister's welcome, albeit recent, conversion to the importance of environmental matters, does the Minister agree that it is not enough to prosecute offenders against the environment? Should not his Department do far more to assist agriculture systems that entail a lower reliance on artificial nitrogenous fertilisers?

Mr. Ryder

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that only a small proportion of nitrate pollution comes directly from fertilisers. The Government are acting on that front. Even if nitrate fertilisers were banned today we should still have nitrate pollution in 40 or 50 years' time, because the worst form of such pollution is connected with the ploughing up of old grassland. In the immediate aftermath of the war, in the 1950s, a large amount of grassland was ploughed up for arable use, and that is what has caused a good deal of the present pollution.

Mr. Lord

Has my hon. Friend seen the results of the research by the Rothamsted research institute? That research clearly shows that the problems caused by nitrates in water can best be improved through sensible modifications to current farming practice. Will my hon. Friend do his best to encourage farmers to put those alterations into operation, and resist demands for hasty or draconian measures that might do much more harm than good?

Mr. Ryder

I have read the Rothamsted report, and the advice that it gives. It is absolutely correct—that nitrogen fertilisers should not be applied in the autumn, that wherever possible the soil should not be left bare during the winter and that winter-sown crops should be sown early in the autumn. If a spring crop is to be sown, a winter catch crop should be grown. That advice should be followed by farmers if the problems to which the hon. Gentleman refers are to be reduced.

Ms. Quin

In view of the concern about nitrates, will the Minister consider making the code of farming practice on nitrates compulsory rather than voluntary? Will he also undertake to increase the amount of money devoted to research on the subject?

Mr. Ryder

We are considering that in the light of the desk studies.

Mr. Gale

When my hon. Friend is very properly considering nitrate levels, will he take into account the fact that it takes 20 years for nitrates spread on the land to filter through to aquifers? Will he take particular account of the fact that areas such as Thanet have very high natural nitrate levels in the soil, and will he make absolutely certain that the farming community does not carry the can for geological factors not under its control?

Mr. Ryder

All those points will be taken into account.

Mr. Alan W. Williams

May I seriously challenge the Minister's earlier explanation about nitrates in water? He said that the problem was to do with grassland. Is it not strange that high nitrate levels in water supplies occur in the very areas where fertiliser usage is at its most intense?

Mr. Ryder

That is correct, but it is also true that those areas are in the parts of Britain where there was the most ploughing up of grassland in the immediate aftermath of the war.

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