Lancaster professor helps propose solutions to nutrient problems as part of Defra expert group

A tractor spreading fertiliser

A Lancaster University professor is part of an expert group commissioned by the Government to find ways to mitigate the impact of some farming practices on air quality, public health and the environment.

The Nutrient Management Expert Group (NMEG), which includes Lancaster University’s Professor of Sustainability Jess Davies among its members, was set up by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to make recommendations about how to minimise pollution from the use, manufacture, storage and distribution of nutrients arising from agriculture and intended for crops.

Improving nutrient management offers major opportunities for enhancing soil health, improving water and air quality, protecting and enhancing biodiversity, and managing resources sustainably.

Since the NMEG was commissioned in 2020, the international energy crisis has tripled fertiliser prices, highlighting the urgency of taking action on economic as well as environmental grounds.

Comprising agricultural policy experts, agronomists, scientists and economists, the NMEG was tasked with exploring the more efficient use of organic and inorganic nutrients, limiting ammonia emissions, reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions and water and soil pollution, and protecting and restoring sensitive habitats, while also considering the need for food production and the nutrient requirements of society.

In its new report, the group’s recommendations include the development of a strategy to encourage more effective nutrient management; increased public and private investment in innovation in the food system and sustainable land management; nutrient budgeting to be established as a basic standard for all farmers and land managers; recycling of nutrients from waste products within farming and the wider food chain to be promoted to support a greener approach to food production.

Professor Davies said: “Nutrients are underappreciated as a key cross-cutting issue for net zero, biodiversity, water quality, as well as the future of our food supplies and rural livelihoods. It was really welcome that Defra sought to bring together a group of experts to advise on how to consider nutrients across their remit, and it was an honour to serve as part of this group.

“Our work at Lancaster has shown that altered nitrogen and phosphorus cycles are a huge driver of current carbon stocks across natural, agricultural and urban ecosystems across the UK, and our collaborations with global businesses on soils has demonstrated the appetite for a cross-sector approach to investing in better land management. These elements, among many others discussed by the group, are highlighted in the report’s recommendations."

The expert Group was chaired by Professor Janet Dwyer of the University of Gloucestershire. She said: “Nutrient management is a significant concern and demands a co-ordinated, long-term and strategic approach that is adaptable and monitored effectively.

“The significant challenge of meeting current and proposed future environmental targets will require wider change across the agri-food sector, and more radical shifts in practices of food production, supply and consumption.

“New policy approaches must be balanced with wider land use strategies, ensuring food, water and energy security are also considered so that shifts are sustainable for the long term.”

The NMEG membership comprised chair Professor Janet Dwyer OBE, Professor Dave Chadwick (Bangor University), Professor Jess Davies (University of Lancaster), Dr Vera Eory (Scotland’s Rural College), Professor Alex Inman (University of Exeter), Professor Penny Johnes (University of Bristol), James Price (Perdiswell Farm), Professor Mark Sutton (UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology), Dr Rachel Thorman (ADAS), Professor Sami Ullah (University of Birmingham), Professor Andy Whitmore (Rothamsted Research) and John Williams (ADAS).

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