Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Resourcing, regulating, enforcing

New EAC report should be good news for rivers affected by intensive livestock industry.

By Dr Alison Caffyn

13th January 2022

FFCC welcomed the opportunity to make a submission to the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into river pollution and it’s great to see the report published today.

The committee broadened its original scope to examine agricultural sources of river pollution and FFCC was able to make a robust submission, drawing on my own research into the spread of intensive livestock units, particularly in Herefordshire and the catchment of the River Wye.

The cumulative impacts of water and other forms of pollution from intensive poultry units were affecting local environments and communities in the Wye catchment.

In this area, the intensive poultry industry has been able to expand its operations massively over the last ten years, with little scrutiny from under-resourced and overstretched local authorities and environmental bodies. No one was monitoring how the total numbers of units was rising fast and that the cumulative impacts of water and other forms of pollution were affecting local environments and communities in the Wye catchment. Only belatedly, in the last couple of years, have the authorities realised how serious the situation had become, particularly with the levels of phosphates and nitrates from the massive amounts of poultry manure finding their way into watercourses. Concerned citizens have succeeded in raising the issue locally and nationally and have volunteered in droves to sample rivers regularly to help fill the gaps in official monitoring.

The valley of the River Wye (by David Martyn)

We want to see more support and investment given to livestock farming that doesn’t damage the environment.

This situation demonstrates how consolidated and intensive livestock farming can harm the environment, and the local people and wildlife that live in the vicinity of its operations. This business model produces cheap chicken and sausages, and is profitable and efficient for the sector, but this comes at the expense of the environment, the taxpayer and local communities. The Environment Agency has had a budget cut of 60% in the last ten years and is unable to properly address the situation through its planning, permitting or enforcement roles. At FFCC we want to see more support and investment given to livestock farming that doesn’t damage the environment, where farmers work to improve wildlife habitats and water quality, which will likely benefit other sectors too such as local fishing and tourism activities. The new ELM regime in England offers the opportunity to make this happen, but it must reflect the real cost of the work involved.

Piloting a land use framework approach will help identify the most effective ways to do this.

The proliferation of intensive poultry units across the Wye is a result of siloed decision making, lack of collaboration and a refusal to listen to local communities who raised the alarm many years ago. Taking a catchment scale approach and working across wider areas in to enable more strategic land use decision making would prevent this sort of situation happening again. FFCC’s work piloting a land use framework approach in Devon and Cambridgeshire will help identify the most effective ways to do this.

We must also start applying the principle that the ‘polluter pays’.

Most importantly our environmental agencies need more resourcing to monitor pollution, to better research the issues and to enforce the existing regulations. And alongside increased investment in the work of good environmental land management, we must also start applying the principle that the ‘polluter pays’ the real cost of their actions. With intensive meat production that means the multinational commodity giants that control the industry should step up.

Banks of the River Wye (by KodaChrome)