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The Commons Efra Committee said the government had not ’set out the steps it will take to protect domestic production of nitrogen fertiliser and [the] ammonia used in it’

The UK food sector’s reliance on the country’s sole remaining factory producing nitrogen-based fertiliser is “a risk to domestic food production”, MPs on the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee have warned.

The cross-party committee’s Food Security report, published on Friday, noted how nitrogen fertiliser was used by UK farmers on 89% of the country’s crop area for tillage crops (such as wheat, barley, potatoes and sugar beet) and 59% of grass – far exceeding the use of other types of inorganic manufactured fertiliser.

But with the UK not self-sufficient in the input, and production only meeting around 40% of the food sector’s demand via CF Fertilisers’ Billingham plant, the report urged the government to “look into increasing the production of nitrogen fertiliser in the UK”.

The committee warned failure to tackle the issue could lead to shortages of both the fertiliser and ultimately the CO2 gas which is a byproduct of the ammonia used in fertiliser production, and widely used across the food sector.

Concerns over the fertiliser supply situation will arguably have been further exacerbated by CF’s decision last week to permanently close the ammonia plant it mothballed at Billingham last August, in a move it said would “secure the long-term sustainability of its business in the UK”, amid soaring energy costs.

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It has since imported ammonia from Canada for use at the plant, raising fresh concerns over the long-term supply of CO2 gas, despite some progress being made to diversify supply since the last CO2 gas supply crisis in 2021.

CF’s move was described as “concerning” by NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw, who said the availability of fertiliser was “a crucial element of domestic food security, and relying on importing ammonia from global markets exposes British fertiliser production to possible long-term risks”.

The Efra report echoed these concerns by also warning CO2 gas prices had since risen 20-fold. And while it welcomed the establishment of a Fertiliser Industry Taskforce in March 2022, the government had not yet “set out the steps it will take to protect domestic production of nitrogen fertiliser and [the] ammonia used in it”, it added.

“Given the importance of nitrogen fertiliser to UK food production and food security, the government should set out how it will ensure its continued production in the UK, including the resumption of ammonia production to help support CO2 supplies,” the report said.

“Looking ahead, the government should take steps to support the increased production of nitrogen fertiliser in the UK, and in so doing examine the incentives offered by our competitors,” it added, while also calling on ministers to “produce an action plan addressing these points within six months of the publication of this report”.

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Efra’s far-reaching report also raised fresh concerns over government policy around migrant labour and the insufficient amount of visas awarded to the food sector. It said the government must address this shortage and “prioritise the country’s long term food security ahead of other considerations”.

And amid accusations of “an incoherent approach towards food policy across government”, the committee called on the government to revive National Food Strategy author Henry Dimbleby’s plans for taxes on foods high in sugar and salt, saying it would nudge consumers towards buying healthier food.

“Food security matters to us all. It is vital to farmers, it is vital to other food producers. And of course, it is vital for every citizen up and down the land to have a square meal at a reasonable price,” said Efra chair Sir Robert Goodwill.

“But surprisingly, the government does not appear to be taking this very basic matter anywhere near seriously enough,” he added.

“This report is calling, through its various recommendations, for much more attention to be paid to the guaranteed supply of good quality food – at prices which suit both producers and consumers. I know that is not an easy balance to strike. But that’s what government is for. It must read the report carefully and act accordingly.”

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