Still just going through the motions

Defra is currently consulting on introducing a ban on urea, used by farmers as a fertiliser. Government estimates that doing this would cut UK ammonia emissions by 8%. The problem is that if we stop using urea, the population of the UK won’t in reality eat less. So to keep them fed we’ll either import more, or replace the urea with ammonium nitrate fertilisers.

So what would happen is that the UK would stop importing urea (because we don’t produce it here). This would probably lead to a slight drop in the world market price and the surplus would soon be snapped up. (Indeed some countries still subsidise their farmers to use it. India and China among them) At the same time farmers in the UK would end up competing for ammonium nitrate (which we do produce in this country but it’s still sold at the world market price) and would end up paying more.

So the net result would be that whilst UK ammonia emissions might drop, world ammonia emissions would stay the same and UK farmers would pick up the bill for more expensive fertilisers. Farmers would be asked to spend money for no real purpose.
Alternatively UK farmers would end up producing less and the UK consumer would eat more imported food, creating extra food miles and still not reducing world urea emissions.

The problem is that we have politicians around the world and of all complexions looking for a quick ‘hit’ that shows ‘they are doing something’. The fact that in reality their actions are irrelevant or even counter-productive is rarely pointed out to them.

One underlying problem is that lobby groups demand a ‘sustainable agriculture’ but how can you have a sustainable agriculture unless you’re trying to feed a ‘sustainable population?’

So let’s look at how, for example, a dairy farm works. We feed cows on grass and concentrate feeds largely made up of waste products.

Some examples of these waste products are;-

Rapeseed meal, this is what’s left when you have crushed rape (canola) to produce the cooking oil.

Wheatfeed. This is another by-product, this time of flour milling. It’s a mixture of wheat bran, endosperm and other starch screenings and floor sweepings.

Distillers’ grains. This is what is left of the grain after you’ve brewed beer or spirits.

Palm kernel.  This is what’s left after you’ve produced palm oil. It used to be a useful feed but is now often too expensive as it’s snapped up for burning in power stations because it’s ‘sustainable’. (That weasel word again.)

Sugarbeet Pulp. This is what is left of the sugar beet after the sugar has been extracted.

Citrus pulp. This is what is left of the citrus fruit after the juice has been squeezed out for people to drink.

But the most important part of the diet is grass.

So we feed concentrates and grass into a cow and we get three outputs. We get milk, we get more cow, and we get what could nicely be described as dung.

We put the dung back onto the land where it grows more grass etc. But we lose fertility because we export milk, and eventually, cow, as beef. We have to replace that lost fertility.

Then look at our consumers. They eat food and it produces work, more consumer, and, inevitably, dung.

To balance the cycle, that dung ought to go back to the farm where it would help replace the lost fertility. But instead the consumer adopts a ‘euugh’ response and flushes it away and thinks no more about it.

But it is the stuff that is flushed away that needs to be replaced and it’s the reason farmers have to purchase artificial fertilisers.

Now this is a relatively new problem. In the UK, the 1847 Town Improvement Clauses Act legalised the discharge of sewerage into rivers and seas and allowed its sale for agricultural purposes. The 1848 Public Health Act decreed every new house should have a water closet or ash-pit privy, which was to be emptied by a night soil collector.

Indeed at one point London had a reasonable system for disposing of its night soil. There were a number of ‘Laystalls’. Originally they were places where cattle had been held and the term evolved into a place where dung was stored. London still has a Laystall Street, at Mount Pleasant. (Not far from Hatton Garden and Smithfield) which in the period before 1800 was apparently a seven acre dung heap.

From there it could be shifted by boat, barge and later by railway and was spread on farmland.

Eventually the system risked becoming overloaded. By 1890 London had, as well as people, 50,000 horses working in the transport system. New York was in an even worse situation, with 100,000 horses producing over 11,000 tons of horse muck a day. It was the advent of the internal combustion engine and the electric tram which rescued cities from disappearing under a mountain of muck.

From and agricultural point of view we could go back to the system, it would greatly reduce the carbon footprint of the country. There are issues. One is composting. In the good old days when everybody had an ash privy which was cleaned out twice a year, there wasn’t a problem. The material composted in the privy and when dug out it could be spread on the land immediately. Unfortunately raw sewage would have to be composted. Still there’s plenty of derelict city centre sites that could be cleared and used for the purpose.

Also there’s all the rubbish city dwellers put in their dung. The media occasionally runs stories on some huge fatberg bigger that a blue whale. Well firstly catering establishments could just be inspected. They can keep a tally of cooking oil purchased and used cooking oil sent for recycling. That would help a great deal. Similarly DIY enthusiasts can stop tipping turps, engine oil and other noxious substances down the drains.

After all, the producers ought to look after their own dung. If anybody feels that there’s too much of it. then they should either just cross their legs, or perhaps just eat less.



You would have thought that when talking crap at least I know what I’m talking about. But I’ve worked with the experts

For this collection of stories, Sal, our loyal Border Collie, is joined by Terry Wogan, Janis Joplin and numerous dairy cows. Meet pheasants, Herdwicks, Border Collies, and the occasional pink teddy bear. Welcome to the world of administrative overload and political incomprehension. All human life, (or at least all that hasn’t already fled screaming for sanctuary) is here.

As a reviewer commented, Jim Webster’s recollections, reflections and comments, about life as a Farmer, are always worth reading, not only for information, but also for entertainment and shrewd comments about UK government agencies (and politicians).
One of the many observations that demonstrate his wryness, is as follows:
There was a comment in the paper the other day. Here in the UK, clowns are starting to complain that politicians are being called clowns. The clowns point out that being a clown is damned hard work, demands considerable fitness, great timing and the ability to work closely with others as part of a well drilled team!

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19 thoughts on “Still just going through the motions

  1. rootsandroutes2012 January 29, 2021 at 6:48 am Reply

    Thank you, Jim – that’s a fascinating read. Towards the end of the piece you mention ‘the rubbish city dwellers put in their dung’. The items you go on to list are, of course, an important consideration in themselves. Another, though, is the content of that dung itself. Since the nineteenth century the pharmaceutical content will have changed beyond all recognition, and may well now include all sorts of chemicals you’d have no wish to spread on your land. But as you say, the ‘euugh’ factor is probably the biggest barrier to balancing the cycle – witness the outcry when a particular crematorium attempted to recycle its energy output by selling heat to a local swimming bath…

    • jwebster2 January 29, 2021 at 8:25 am Reply

      Yes we may have to wait for people to grow up which might mean they go a bit hungry first 😦
      But Eddy Winko may have suggested other solutions.
      Mind you, as somebody with a septic tank, I think being in possession of wet wipes in a room with a toilet is getting awfully close to being a capital crime 🙂

      • rootsandroutes2012 January 29, 2021 at 9:09 am

        A long time ago, our septic tank used to be emptied and spread on our fields – win win – you wouldn’t find cheaper fertiliser anywhere. You couldn’t do it now, with multiple households feeding into the same tank and almost a nailed on certainty that some of them will be putting unspeakable things down their toilets.

      • jwebster2 January 29, 2021 at 10:35 am

        We have the advantage that our septic tank is just us 🙂

  2. Eddy Winko January 29, 2021 at 7:30 am Reply

    You should read the Humanure Handbook the fat that we put down the toilet is no bother, the real culprit is the wet wipes, sanitary towel’s and a whole host of other items of a non organic origin that are flushed away.
    If I remember correctly there is also research suggesting that the fungi that is promoted in compost has the ability to decontaminate soil from many chemicals (engine oil, radiation…)
    Regarding the import of night soil, I think the UK already does
    Radio 4 did a great comedy drama regarding the subject last year but I can’t find it now. It went along the lines of importing waste with hallucinogenic properties that ended up in the grass the cows ate, increasing the popularity of the milk and meat from a particular farm 🙂

    • jwebster2 January 29, 2021 at 8:22 am Reply

      I never cease to be humbled by the level of knowledge people bring to this blog when they read it 🙂

      • Eddy Winko January 29, 2021 at 10:48 am

        I’m sad to say that the one thing I do know about is shit! 8 years of dry toilets fills the mind with it 🙂

      • jwebster2 January 29, 2021 at 12:30 pm


    • rootsandroutes2012 January 29, 2021 at 9:03 am Reply

      Would that mean there’s an episode of ‘The Wilsons Save the World’ that I haven’t yet heard 🙂

  3. Dr Dan Holdsworth January 29, 2021 at 11:11 am Reply

    There is actually another aspect to nitrogenous fertilisers that you have not touched upon, which is that ammonium nitrate can be used to produce an explosive called “Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil” (ANFO) by the addition of small amounts of diesel oil to finely powdered ammonium nitrate. This stuff is a low explosive and needs a high explosive to set it off, but once triggered is immensely powerful. The IRA used bombs like this; basically a lorry load of ANFO with some quarrying high explosives to get it going. A lot of roadside bombs in Afganistan are ANFO-based devices.

    This is why quite a lot of people would like production of ammonium nitrate phased out in favour of urea, which cannot be trivially turned into an explosive. Where ammonium nitrate is used, care has to be taken to turn the raw material into consistent and robust prills and to include a fire retardent, but even so the fact remains that the stuff is a fire and explosion risk.

    • jwebster2 January 29, 2021 at 12:31 pm Reply

      Whereas if I remember correctly, urea is a foaming agent and is used as such by fire brigades

  4. Stevie Turner January 29, 2021 at 12:20 pm Reply

    And how many would be queueing up to be a night soil collector? Not many, I’ll wager…

    • jwebster2 January 29, 2021 at 12:31 pm Reply

      I suspect it might depend on the alternatives 🙂

  5. M T McGuire February 2, 2021 at 2:49 pm Reply

    I love that, and there’s so much sense to it as well. It’s just stupid. All these things make me think about that episode of Yes Minister about the Euro sausage. Blimey that show was good.



    • jwebster2 February 2, 2021 at 3:12 pm Reply

      yes it was wasn’t it 🙂

  6. M T McGuire February 2, 2021 at 4:13 pm Reply

    Just thinking about this. When sewage has been treated what’s left is called sludge cake and is sold to farmers. Surely we just need to ensure that all the sludge cake produced is sold. And nitrates are really bad because they get into our rivers, streams and ponds and damage the ecosystem there. It’s even more mental than I first thought it was.

    • rootsandroutes2012 February 2, 2021 at 4:25 pm Reply

      Remember M T McGuire, to get all that sludge cake sold (and I shudder to think how much there must be) the price point would have to be attractive. The problem with that is that it isn’t just American cattle that are fed hormones – plenty of British people are too, and you’d either have to go with a low price per ton and leave the hormones (and other stuff) in, or process it out, with the obvious impact on price, and hence demand.

      • M T McGuire February 2, 2021 at 4:27 pm

        Bah! My cunning plan is foiled. That’s an excellent point. Back to the drawing board.

      • jwebster2 February 2, 2021 at 5:46 pm

        The level of oestrogens in water that has passed through London and Londoners, in theory you shouldn’t need contraception in the towns of the Thames estuary 🙂

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