NMEG report: Improving policy and practice for agricultural nutrient use and management

Janet Dwyer, David R. Chadwick, Jessica Davies, Vera Eory, Alex Inman, Penny Johnes, James Price, Mark A. Sutton, Rachel E. Thorman, Sami Ullah, Andrew P. Whitmore, John R. Williams

Research output: Book/Report/Policy Brief/Technical BriefResearch report

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Mitigating and adapting to climate change and protecting environmental quality whilst
meeting society’s needs for food and other resources is one of the most pressing
challenges facing humanity. Nutrient management plays a key role in ameliorating this
crisis. Agriculture is a major contributor to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions globally, but
also a key sector that provides food, energy and interacts closely with the environment.
Improving nutrient management offers major opportunities for enhancing soil health,
improving water and air quality, protecting and enhancing biodiversity and managing
resources sustainably. These wide-ranging issues overlap and may compete, so must be
tackled through joined-up policy making and integrated action. Since NMEG was
commissioned in 2020, the international energy crisis has roughly tripled fertiliser1 prices,
highlighting the urgency of taking action on economic as well as environmental grounds.
Pollution from agricultural nutrient management is a complex problem, to which there is no
single easy solution. Crops need nutrients, whether from organic or inorganic sources. All
inputs can in principle cause pollution through gaseous losses following application,
contamination or nutrient imbalance in soil, leaching to water, or gaseous emissions from
the different activities of resource management (such as storage, processing and
manufacture). Addressing only one type of pollution (and from only one source) can easily
cause the simultaneous increase of another type of pollution elsewhere in the system. No
single nutrient or management method can prevent all losses of nutrients to the
environment. Nevertheless, much improved nutrient management remains vital for
sustainable agriculture in the UK.
In response to these challenges, NMEG was formed. The Clean Air Strategy 2019 set out
to reduce emissions of ammonia (NH3) against the 2005 baseline, with 8% by 2020 and
16% by 2030 (DEFRA, 2019). The strategy provided a comprehensive set of actions to
improve air quality, improve public health, protect the environment and boost the
economy. Included in these actions was a commitment to set up an expert group including
agricultural policy experts, agronomists, scientists, and economists. The group should
make recommendations on the optimal form of policy to minimise pollution from fertiliser
As links to other nutrient issues were quickly recognised, the remit of the planned group
was expanded.
It was tasked with challenges such as:
• exploring the more efficient use of organic and inorganic nutrients
• limiting ammonia emissions
• reducing GHG emissions and water and soil pollution
• protecting and restoring sensitive habitats
• taking into account food production and the nutrient requirements of society
NMEG was launched in November 2020, to advise Defra on how to minimise pollution
from the use, manufacture, storage and distribution of nutrients arising from agriculture
and intended for crops. It met monthly and focused on specific questions provided by
Defra on different policy themes in each meeting, inviting additional experts as appeared
most relevant. It liaised regularly with a wider stakeholder group and sought to develop
principles and recommendations for the specific themes and for the wider agri-food and
land management systems within which they arise, aiming for a holistic view throughout.
This NMEG report aims to combine the considered advice of its members with insights
from Defra’s policy teams and single-element expert groups, providing a coherent
approach to enhance nutrient management policy.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages92
Publication statusPrint publication - May 2024


  • air quality
  • water quality
  • net zero
  • soils
  • circular economy


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