HL Deb 07 July 1943 vol 128 cc314-22

VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government to what extent phosphatic fertilizers derived from North African phosphate rock or British steelworks are now obtainable for agricultural purposes in Great Britain; and whether their use is restricted to any particular crop or crops; and to move for Papers.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, this question with regard to phosphatic fertilizers is intended to be a plea for the supply of more fertilizers of this character to the farming community, and for authority to use those fertilizers, at least to some extent, on the remaining permanent pastures of this country. I hope that your Lordships will not regard it as inopportune if I remind you that it is exactly one hundred years since our oldest and most important agricultural research station, that at Rothamsted, was founded. Sir John Bennet Lawes, in the year pre-viously, in May, 1842, initiated the artificial fertilizer industry by inventing and producing the first chemical manure— namely, superphosphate of lime. He took out a patent for it in May, 1842. In 1843 he founded, with the help of Sir Joseph Henry Gilbert, the Rothamsted experimental station, of the administrative committee of which I had for several years the honour to be Chairman. In 1899, just a year before he died, he provided out of his own pocket, to ensure the continuity of Rothamsted, no less than £100,000 and thereby enabled that station, the most famous agricultural research station in the world, and connected originally, as I have said, with the production of phosphatic fertilizers, to be carried on for many years before the Government lent a hand by providing a subsidy. I mention this because it is important to recognize that England pointed the way to the whole of the artificial fertilizer industry, which has more than doubled the food output of the European countries during the last hundred years.

I want to make it perfectly clear, in asking these questions, that I have no doubt in my own mind whatever as to the efficacy of and justification for ploughing up permanent pasture. Rather to the surprise of many experts, it has been found that, owing to the stored-up fertility of grassland, especially where it has been dressed in the past with basic slag, no fewer than three white straw crops of large quantity have been secured in succession from the same land. It would seem improvident and woefully short-sighted, however, if we entirely ignored, particularly in the West of England and Wales, the many hundreds of thousands of acres of unploughable grassland, land which cannot be ploughed or disc-harrowed owing, for instance, to its proximity to cow byres, so that it must be used for the accommodation of dairy cattle, or to steepness of gradient, insufficient depth of soil, or the presence of springs, making it impossible to drain it.

For the last three years it has been illegal to apply phosphate of any description to permanent grass. This means a serious and progressive diminution in the stock-carrying capacity of the land and the quality of live-stock products. I want to emphasize this last argument, because we in this country, curiously enough, have not conducted any large amount of research on the effect of phosphate starvation of land upon the quality of milk or upon the quality or amount of meat which results. Phosphatic fertilizers include, in addition to bonemeal, and bonedust, which is not often used nowadays, basic slag, derived from British and formerly—and of much higher grade —from Belgian steelworks, superphosphate, manufactured from phosphate rock, and to some extent from bone, and the rock itself in a highly pulverized condition.

As regards basic slag, your Lordships may be aware that this originated as a byproduct of the Bessemer steel-making process. To-day, unfortunately, the Bessemer process has almost disappeared, except in Belgium, and with the open hearth process the resulting basic slag is of very much lower grade; I think it contains only some 8 to 15 per cent. of phosphates, as compared with 40 per cent. and upwards which used to result from the Bessemer process. We have obtained our phosphate rock in the past from North Africa, including Morocco, Algeria, and in particular Tunisia, to a certain extent also from Florida, and to some extent, since the last war, from Ocean Island and Nauru in the South-West Pacific. Those islands used to be in the hands of the Germans. They came into our hands, with great advantage to our Dominions in the Antipodes, after the last war, and are now in the hands of the Japanese.

The reason why I am bringing this question forward, so far as phosphate rock is concerned, is that North Africa is now in our hands. I should mention that we have had during the last two years quite a considerable amount of Florida phosphate rock, and what is called tricalcic super- phosphate from American sources On the effect of superphosphates I need not enlarge. Phosphates are absolutely essential to the development of the roots of plants, particularly where the root forms the economic product, and also to the development of fruits and grain. They are also an important factor in accelerating ripening, unlike nitrogenous fertilizers, which tend to defer ripening. That is a matter of some importance from a meteorological point of view. Phosphates are now much more readily obtainable than they were even a year ago, principally in the form of rock phosphate from North Africa and basic slag from our steelworks at home. I hope your Lordships will not regard it as irrelevant if I say that New Zealand has the finest and least adulterated pastures in the whole world, and the effect of applying phosphates to them is almost miraculous, not only in improving the herbage but in augmenting the output and the quality of meat and milk. One striking effect of applying phosphates generally, and basic slag in particular, to grassland, is to increase the wild white clover and other leguminous plants in the herbage; it stimulates the growth of those clovers, which themselves, through the nodules on their roots, absorb nitrogen from the air, so that derivatively the application of phosphates to pasture where there are clovers or other leguminous plants augments not only the phosphates in the soil but the nitrates also.

Excluding rough grazings, the un-ploughable grassland represents probably one-fifth of the total agricultural acreage of our English counties. That is an average figure; it would be a good deal more in the West and South-West of England, and probably less in counties such as Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. All this area would benefit immensely from dressings of phosphates, but under the present policy this area is at least stagnating at a low level of productivity, and in most cases is deteriorating steadily every year. This deterioration is indicated by the progressive decrease of wild white clover, trefoil and other leguminous plants, and the increase of worthless weeds such as quaker grass, plantain and so on. Only seven years ago the Government were emphasizing the great importance of applying phosphates to permanent pasture, and indeed [...] slag accordingly. Now, of course, the use of phosphates is permitted when ploughing and re-seeding permanent pasture, but none, as I say, is allowed for unplough-able grass, although ploughing and re-seeding make a much greater demand on man-power and machine, and the process, of course, is not invariably a success.

As regards our actual supplies from overseas, last year we imported about double our pre-war supplies from abroad in the form of Florida rock and American triple superphosphate, but this was not enough, although, of course, it was very welcome. Soon after the landing of American troops in Morocco—and I should like most warmly to congratulate the Ministry of Agriculture on their-alacrity—shipments started from that source. Between January and April this year considerable shipments came here from North Africa. But for some reason or other these shipments have fallen off, although there is plenty of phosphates in situ in all three North African territories. Rumour has it that ships are returning home from the North African coasts empty. Well, if that is so, it seems to call for some explanation. Meanwhile, shipments of Florida rock and American superphosphate have, I understand, also been considerably reduced. This seems to indicate that supplies of phosphate fertilizer which are already insufficient for our present war purposes, are on the decrease rather than the increase, although more sources are available from which to obtain it.

The position with regard to basic slag would appear to be even less satisfactory. The fertilizer control at the Ministry of Supply was instrumental last year in increasing basic slag production, but not, of course, to the extent that was either possible or desirable. The main difficulty there has been the lack of adequate grinding plant. Now machinery, of course, is admittedly unobtainable at short notice. Very long delays that have occurred in obtaining the necessary approval from the Treasury and various branches of the Ministry of Supply seem very hard to justify. But now that approvals have been given they have been for some obscure reason suddenly cancelled. Some explanation should be forthcoming for these cancellations. Such an explanation, at any rate from the Ministry of Supply, is due to the whole agricultural population. I noticed only yesterday that the President of the Board of Trade stated in another place that material would be forthcoming for the manufacture of more perambulators— to the extent, if I remember aright, of 30 per cent. Surely, if that material, presumably metal material, can be justified in the case of perambulators, it can be justified in providing the land with what it so badly needs if the milk for the infants who will use those perambulators is to be adequately provided in the future.

We need every ounce of phosphate that we can get, especially in the form of basic slag, which requires no shipping space and contains lime as well as phosphoric acid, and therefore is especially beneficial to our acid grasslands. The basic slag output just before the war, in 1937, was, I understand, 306,000 tons. This has been substantially increased since, but until there is enough not only for the increased production of our cereal crops, but also to allow some of it at any rate, be it only of low grade, to be available for our un-ploughable pasture, surely an effort should be made on the part of His Majesty's Government to secure larger supplies. I only want to say in conclusion that three eminent agricultural scientists have lately passed to their rest, Sir Daniel Hall, Sir Thomas Middleton, and the greatest chemist of all, Professor Henry Armstrong. All these men were emphatic upon the importance of using phosphate fertilizers upon grassland, and Professory Henry Armstrong went so far as to say that with the enormous consumption of phosphate rock and of phosphates from other sources there was a real danger, owing to land starvation in the matter of phosphates, of human starvation some day becoming an appalling reality. All I would say in that connexion is that this may be an exaggerated view, but at any rate it is a view that one ought to bear in mind, considering that it has been held in the past by the most eminent agricultural scientist that this country has of late produced. I beg to move.


My Lords, the noble Viscount in moving this Motion commenced with a reference to the centenary of Rothamsted in the near future. I naturally would like to associate myself with his remarks in paying tribute to that great institution, but I would not at this moment anticipate what may be said by [...] friend on the day in question. Since the Allied occupation of North Africa very large quantities of phosphate rock have been shipped to this country for the production of superphosphate for agriculture, and it is confidently expected that these shipments will continue. The House would not expect me to give the exact figures either of the fertilizers or the raw materials manufactured in this country, but I can say that for the 1943–44 fertilizer season the phosphatic fertilizers manufactured from North African rock will form a substantial proportion of the total used by the farmers in the United Kingdom, and it is expected that the superphosphate works in this country will remain in full production.

But because we are receiving these large imports from North Africa it would be a mistake to think that there is any possibility of relaxing any restrictions on the use of phosphatic fertilizers in this country. When these supplies from North Africa were cut off a large quantity had to be shipped from North America. In order that we should maintain our necessary supplies our friends had to make certain adjustments in their allocation. Since we have been able to resume these imports from North Africa certain modifications have been made in the imports from North America. The need for economy in shipping is as great as it has ever been and the phosphate requirements of the United Nations as a whole are considered and provided for in Washington. While the increase of supplies from North Africa and the reduction of imports from North America make the total available to the farmers of this country generally greater than it was before the war, the need for economy on the part of all farmers out of the allocations that they get makes it necessary to continue the permit system introduced last year and also the prohibition of phosphatic fertilizers on grassland.

I would here remind my noble friend that the order prohibiting the use of phosphates on grassland was introduced last September and not, as I understood him to say, three years ago. If on the other hand there is a certain deficiency in phosphates in certain grassland a special licence may be obtained from the county committee. The permit system for phosphates has also to be continued but, subject to the special restriction I have men- tioned, there is no general restriction on the use of phosphatic fertilizers manufactured from North African rock. Indeed, definite advantage may be obtained by the different kinds of phosphatic fertilizers being considered interchangeable. Some of the finer distinctions that characterized fertilizer practice have been abandoned during the war and this applies both to basic slag and superphosphates. Basic slag has also been prohibited from being applied to grassland, and a licence is also necessary from the committee under very special circumstances. The permit system to which I have referred is now worked out on a basis of units expressed in P2O5 equivalent. The quantity of P2O5 equivalent which each farmer will receive is worked out on the cropping programme which he must submit to his county committee.

It has been laid down that a certain standard dressing shall be applied to each crop and to phosphate-deficient soils. A leaflet has been prepared which I will hand to my noble friend at the end of this debate which gives particulars of the quantity of P2O5 equivalent which should be applied to the various crops; but the farmer is in no way bound by the information in this leaflet. He is free to use his allocation as he likes provided always he does not apply it to grassland without the special licence. At the same time, he is advised to keep as far as possible to the standard rates advised in the leaflet. Subject to any unforeseen circumstances that may arise as a result of military operations, the maximum provision of this phosphate will be continued and the quantity which is necessary for the activities of the farmers in this country should be maintained. One of the reasons which I have been given, with which the noble Lord with his scientific knowledge may or may not agree, is that when applied to ploughed up land these phosphates have a quicker reaction on the production of food than they do when applied to the unploughable pastures in respect of which two or three years may elapse before benefit is derived. To-day we need all the food we can get in the quickest way we can get it, and for that reason and because of the fact that we cannot have all that we should like of this phosphatic fertilizer, restrictions must for the time being be maintained. I have no doubt that if improvements should arise and our shipments maintain the promise held out at this moment, the points raised by the noble Viscount will receive the consideration of my right honourable friend at the earliest possible moment.


My Lords, I thank the noble Duke for his reply. I cannot pretend to be altogether convinced from a scientific point of view, but I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.