The SME-environment survey reveals an impressive 45% increase in the number of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in agriculture implementing practical environmental measures in the past two years - with 48% now having a practical measure in place (up from 33% in 2005). This is a significantly greater improvement than in many other industry sectors.
The study reveals that a growing number of agricultural businesses are concerned about the environment, and are taking more action to curb their environmental impact than SMEs in other sectors. Now 45% have an environmental policy in place, well ahead of the cross-sector average of 40%, and up from the 31% recorded for agriculture in 2005.
Agricultural businesses are proving more proactive than many others - taking steps to minimise their environmental impact through measures including recycling (mentioned by 71% waste minimisation (27% and implementing energy efficiency or water reduction measures (18&%)
However, agricultural SMEs are still unaware of how their business practices impact on the environment - and need more advice from environmental regulators and local authorities to avoid prosecution. Just one in seven or 15% realised that they took part in activities that could harm the environment - from storing chemicals, fuels, oils and waste to abstracting water from lakes, rivers and boreholes.
NetRegs.gov.uk's survey reveals that SMEs' awareness of their specific legal obligations is still low, with just 24% able to name a piece of environmental legislation, falling considerably among businesses employing fewer than 10 staff. However, the agricultural sector is outperforming most other sectors, with 36 % able to name a piece of environmental legislation unprompted.
In a year when SMEs have been hit by fines of around £2.4m for pollution and environmental damage, the need for better environmental support for all small businesses has never been greater. The Environment Agency's new Spotlight report reveals that three quarters of businesses fined over £5,000 for breaching environmental laws last year were SMEs - businesses employing fewer than 250 people - with the average SME fine topping £14,500.
Richard Martin, NetRegs programme manager, explained: "There is a growing will among small and medium sized agricultural businesses to protect the environment through improved business practices. But with limited time at their disposal, many still don't understand what they need to do.
"With the recent outbreak of foot and mouth, concerns over pricing and increasing competition from abroad, agricultural SMEs are under a great deal of pressure - and we realise that environmental considerations are not always a high priority. The NetRegs.gov.uk website has been developed to provide SMEs with easy-to-use, free guidance on how to comply with environmental legislation. Delivered as a partnership between the Environment Agency and the other environmental regulators, it explains to businesses exactly what they need to do to comply with the law and avoid prosecution."
As agricultural businesses will need to review the way in which they dispose of waste when new Landfill Regulations come into force on 30 October, it is more important than ever that they get guidance on their environmental obligations - and take action to comply with the law.
In the NetRegs.gov.uk survey, a quarter of small agricultural businesses were found to store waste, and 69% store chemicals, fuel or oils - potentially harmful activities which many of those questioned did not think of as such.
John Biddulph, partner in Rodmarton Farms which operates from Irongate farm in Cirencester, said: "The main piece of environmental legislation which is applicable to the farming industry is the agricultural waste regulations in 2006. As yet, not all farmers understand the definitions contained within the regulations and with farming generating not only general waste but hazardous waste as well, an environmental guidance tool certainly has a role to play in educating the industry.
"With licensed landfill sites being an obvious solution to the waste problem, farmers do not immediately think of recycling. NetRegs is an ideal resource for farmers to learn more about the options and we would strongly recommend that they access the site."