The government must come up with a long-term strategy to protect food supplies following the closure of the UK’s last remaining ammonia plant, one of the country’s largest trade associations has warned.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), has raised concerns over CF Fertilisers’ decision last month to permanently shut down ammonia production in Billingham, Teeside.
He told City A.M.: “UK food security is important for every retailer who source the vast majority of their food here, so losing a plant which produces both fertiliser and CO2 as a by-product is very worrying. This is not a recent problem, and while we do not expect any immediate impact on food supplies, it is high time the government implemented a long term food security plan.”
Ammonia is a key raw material in the production of nitrogen fertiliser, which is essential for crop production, while its by-product carbon dioxide is a staple ingredient for food and beverage packaging, fire extinguishers, foaming rubber and the humane slaughter of animals.
CF Fertilisers, a British subsidiary of the US-based CF Industries, was the only domestic producer of ammonium nitrate fertiliser since 2015 and is also responsible for 60 per cent of the UK’s CO2 production,
It announced last month it was permanently closing its Billingham ammonia plant – after 10 months of the plant not being in operation.
At the time, the company revealed the decision was made in response to the UK’s high gas prices compared to rival markets, which meant the plant could no longer be “cost-competitive.”
It now intends to continue to produce ammonium nitrate fertiliser and nitric acid production at the site, but will rely on imported ammonia from the US.
“The company believes that ample global availability of ammonia for import, including from CF Industries’ North American production network, will enable more cost competitive and efficient production and sales of ammonium nitrate fertiliser and nitric acid for its UK agriculture and chemicals customers moving forward,” CF Fertilisers said.
These concerns were also revealed in documents seen by City A.M. last year, as it negotiated over continuing production on an emergency basis with the government amid soaring wholesale costs
In 2021, British farmers used just over 3.5m tonnes of fertiliser products – including 1.4m tonnes was ammonium nitrate.
Following the decision, Tom Bradshaw, deputy president of the National Farmers Union described the closure as “concerning” and urged the government to look closely at how this shift to a reliance of imported ammonia could impact domestic food production.
“Availability of fertiliser is a crucial element of domestic food security and relying on importing ammonia from global markets exposes British fertiliser production to possible long-term risks,” Bradshaw said.
A government spokesperson said: “The closure of CF fertiliser is disappointing news, but this is ultimately a commercial decision.
“We recognise how crucial food security is, which is why at the Farm to Fork Summit we set out a range of actions to support farmers to boost domestic food production, as part of our plans to grow the economy.”