The UK government is to host a crisis planning meeting with farmers about rocketing fertiliser prices, as part of several moves designed to reduce the impact of rising costs on food production.
Quotes for ammonium nitrate fertiliser prices have risen as high as £1,000 a tonne in recent weeks, compared with £280 a tonne a year ago.
The cost of fertiliser first rose in response to the increase in wholesale gas prices, because of the levels of energy needed for production.
More recently the conflict in Ukraine has exacerbated the situation, disrupting exports from Russia and further increasing production costs. A recent price surge sparked panic buying from some farmers who feared the price would keep rising.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will host a fertiliser roundtable this week with industry bodies, chaired by the farming minister Victoria Prentis, to discuss pressures on farmers and to come up with possible solutions to soaring prices.
The meeting will also look at alternatives to ammonium nitrate fertiliser, including those produced from organic material, as well as the use of some traditional farming practices, where crops are grown without fertiliser.
Defra said the government would pay farmers to help them with the cost of sowing nitrogen-fixing plants, such as legumes and clovers, to reduce some of their dependence on manufactured fertilisers.
Some farmers, who are already facing increased costs for fuel and animal feed, have warned they will offset the higher prices by buying less fertiliser, which could lead to lower crop production at a time when supplies of cereals are already threatened by the war in Ukraine, which is a major exporter.
The environment secretary, George Eustice, said the measures announced by government were “not the whole solution” but intended to help farmers manage their nitrogen needs over the coming year.
“The significant rise in the cost of fertiliser is a reminder that we need to reduce our dependence on manufacturing processes dependent on gas. Many of the challenges we face in agriculture will require a fusion of new technology with conventional principles of good farm husbandry,” Eustice said.
Mark Tufnell, the president of the Country Land and Business Association welcomed Defra’s announcement, but warned of the “sheer scale of the challenges ahead in the UK’s food production”.
“Some farmers may choose not to spread fertiliser at all this year. But if prices continued to stay at this all-time-high then government will need to urgently consider ways of increasing and diversifying domestic fertiliser production,” he said. “We hope this will be a central focus of the roundtable Defra has rightly called.”
Defra has also introduced a range of other measures designed to help English farmers deal with rising prices, including a delay in any changes to permitting the use of urea fertiliser.
Its use had been expected to be banned to reduce air pollution, following a government consultation launched in 2020. The measures will not be introduced until April 2023.
The department said it was also introducing changes to the rules around autumn muck spreading.