UK farmers may have to reduce the number of animals they keep because of the critical state of some river catchments, a pollution expert from the government’s environment watchdog has said.
Farming is the most significant source of water pollution and ammonia emissions into the atmosphere in the UK, according to government data. It accounts for 25% of phosphate, 50% of nitrate and 75% of sediment loadings in the water environment, which harms ecosystems.
Speaking independently, Tim Bailey of the Environment Agency said the state of catchments such as the River Wye and the Somerset Levels and Moors had become critical because of the number of chickens and dairy cows and the problem of disposing of manure from farms.
Just three counties – Herefordshire, Shropshire and Powys – produce more than a quarter of a billion chickens a year, capacity having doubled in the past decade.
“Many catchments are already at or beyond the capacity of the environment to cope, and more will follow unless we take unparalleled action,” said Bailey, the author of Livestock’s Longer Shadow, about the industry’s environmental impact in the UK.
“In some instances it will entail the reduction and restriction of livestock production, or the treatment and export of organic manures. There are catchments like the River Wye where we need to export to other catchments, but transferring the problem will eventually risk creating a UK-wide pollution problem,” he said. “It’s a critical situation.”
Environmental campaigners have referred to the Wye as “like pea soup at times” as a result of algal blooms fuelled in part by phosphate-rich excrement eventually making its way to the river.
One of the UK’s biggest chicken suppliers, Avara Foods, which supplies Tesco and other supermarkets, has admitted that chicken litter from its farms has polluted the waterway.
Bailey said livestock numbers needed to match the carrying capacity of the area, rather than the current heavy concentrations in some places. “We have to start fitting livestock into the environment. That way we are not stressing the environment so that it can’t cope.”
As well as destocking, the solution would entail a mix of regulation, advice and financial support for farmers, he said. “This is not a farmer problem, it’s a societal problem. Farmers want to get to the same place, but are trapped in a cheap food economy. If society wants a clean River Wye or to stop Amazon deforestation, then it has to take responsibility.”
A spokesperson for Avara Foods said the company was looking at alternative destinations for chicken litter waste from its supply chain, including combined heat and power plants and novel anaerobic digestion technology, which would also remove phosphates.
The National Farmers’ Union and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have been approached for comment.