'Radical shake-up of farmland needed'

THE landscape in East Anglia may have to return to the grassland state it was in during the Middle Ages to stop a cocktail of pollutants from farming jeopardising water quality, researchers have warned.

THE landscape in East Anglia may have to return to the grassland state it was in during the Middle Ages to stop a cocktail of pollutants from farming jeopardising water quality, researchers have warned.

Experts have concluded the only way to address the amount of nitrate pollution diffusing into the region's water supply is for a “radical change” in land use, which would see vast swathes of arable farmland taken out of production.

The conclusion was drawn by ADAS, formerly known as the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service, a leading agency providing advice on environmental and rural policy.

It has now warned the Government that diffuse pollution - which occurs across wide areas of land over a long period of time instead of entering a river at one specific site - is the “single biggest threat” to water ecosystems and resources.

And if major action is not taken quickly, nitrate levels in the east's water could breach EU laws under the Water Framework Directive, it told environment minister Elliot Morley.

The agency said the farming industry “hangs in the balance” as the region faces a stark choice between food or water.

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But the National Farmers Union (NFU) in East Anglia said the agency's proposed solution was “not a feasible option”.

Professor Roger Sylvester Bradley, responsible for ADAS's fertiliser research, said: “Good farming practice alone cannot sufficiently address the nitrate problem.

“The only way to safeguard the future of our water resource is to significantly reform land use at the catchment scale, and convert much of our existing arable land into unfertilised, restorative grassland or forest.

“Such radical change must be presaged by public debate on the future shape of our countryside. Given the extent of the changes required, perhaps half of land users will have to accept a radical new outlook.

“The necessary adjustments will be disruptive and difficult.”

Historic land activity, and particularly intensive chemically-dependent farming, has set in motion a diffuse pollution trend which is proving highly difficult to control or reverse, ADAS said.

The problem is heightened in this region due to the relatively dry regional climate, leaving less rain water available to dilute water contaminants.

It said this poses a significant threat to aquatic wildlife and, in the long term, public water supply.

The Forum for Water, set up by ADAS, has made several recommendations and among these is a re-evaluation of the way land use is designated.

But Brian Finnerty, regional spokesman for the NFU, said yesterday: “The key is to find the right balance between our environmental and economic needs. We cannot just turn off food production.

“Growing food in this country is not an optional extra. We cannot return to a medieval landscape when there is 10 times the medieval population to feed.”

He said farmers do take environmental issues seriously and 1,500 in the region had signed up to the environmental stewardship scheme. The use of pesticides and fertilisers is also falling, he said.

Mr Finnerty added: “We do not really think it is a feasible option to go ahead and take land out of production. Farming employs 55,000 people in the region and supports many more jobs. You cannot just say that you will shut it down or shut half of it down.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “One of the greatest challenges we face in boosting the quality of our water environment is in tackling pollution from agriculture, and we must address this.

“It is important to recognise that many of the effective measures which reduce nitrate pollution involve simple changes to farm management practices, not fundamental changes to the nature of farm businesses.”

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