Organic IS climate action: Campaign puts fossil fuel-based fertiliser in the spotlight 

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A major new Soil Association campaign is calling on the public to take action on climate change by calling for the government to urgently develop a plan for reducing fossil fuel-based nitrogen fertilisers.

The organic charity says that “slashing emissions from fertiliser manufacture and use” will be needed if the UK is to hit its ‘Net Zero’ by 2050 target. Currently, it warns, the UK government’s Net Zero Strategy “offers no plan for tackling the problem”. 

Soil Association head of farming policy Gareth Morgan said: “It is shocking that the government’s Net Zero Strategy makes only a passing mention of the impact of fossil fuel-based fertilisers on the climate and environment and even more alarming that they have no plan in place to support farmers to reduce their reliance on them. The production of nitrogen fertiliser is highly dependent on expensive and polluting fossil fuels making farmers very vulnerable to huge price spikes and global events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“Agriculture and the food system are responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions and failing to address this will mean that the government has simply no prospect of meeting its net zero target.”

Nitrogen is a key contributor to climate change. In its active form, such as in fertiliser, it releases nitrous oxide when exposed to soil causing microbial reactions. This gas is 300 times more potent at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide – and it remains active for more than 100 years – almost 10 times longer than methane. These agricultural emissions contribute 25% of the particulate pollution in London’s air, 32% in Birmingham and 38% in Leicester in 2019.

Morgan said: “It is vital that the government demonstrates its commitment to net zero by setting a target for reducing fossil fuel-based fertiliser in UK farming and offers incentives and advice to support farmers to reduce their dependence on nitrogen fertiliser and adopt cheaper more nature friendly approaches to fix nitrogen on their farms.

“We want all UK governments to take action on nitrogen, but we are targeting the Westminster government first, as the biggest player, because they have ultimate UK accountability for net zero and the vast majority of fertilizer use is in England.”

“UK farming can’t simply go cold turkey on nitrogen. However, the government and farmers can utilise the decades of experience and research in the organic farming sector – which is not permitted to use these harmful fossil fuel-based products. Organic farmers build natural fertility using nature friendly farming practices incorporating natural fertiliser, crops including legumes and clover in rotations, and a whole farm system approach. This experience can help conventional farmers to reduce their reliance on costly inputs which will deliver significant benefits for the climate and biodiversity.”

Climate change survey
A survey by Soil Association Certification to coincide with Organic September found that 69% of UK citizens are worried by recent evidence of climate change and a third 62% want the government, and all political parties, to prioritise policies which address climate change.

But just a third (33%) of the public were aware fossil fuel-based fertilisers contribute to all of the following: the warming climate, air pollution, dying rivers, and poor soil health whilst two-thirds (64%) believe agriculture should be a higher priority for all political parties in their climate and nature strategies. And three-quarters (73%) want to see greater support for farmers to produce food in harmony with nature without relying on harmful chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

The Soil Association is calling for the public to take climate action by signing its ‘There’s no Net Zero without fixing fertiliser’ petition calling for the government to urgently:

  • set a target for reducing fossil fuel-based fertiliser use in UK farming
  • support farmers to transition away from reliance on expensive artificial fertilisers, and
  • support nature-friendly farming approaches like organic, that don’t rely on artificial fertilisers

Organic IS climate action
This year’s Organic September campaign will focus on the message that ‘organic is climate action’ and that organic has the many of the solutions for the climate, nature and health crises and to support a more sustainable future. It will urge the public to support organic for climate and nature by making one small swap to organic next time they shop.

For fifty years Soil Association Certification has been certifying farmers and businesses to grow food and produce goods in a way that supports up to 50% more wildlife on farms. Organic farming also nurtures healthy soils that store, on average more than 25% more carbon than non-organic soils, and more water, reducing the risks of drought and flooding and helping to make organic farms more resilient to the threats of a changing climate.

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