How can we properly address the demise of our rivers by intensive chicken production?
Most of us will now be aware that the state of our rivers, their tributaries and our coastal waters is not up to scratch, either for wildlife, natural ecosystems or human health.
Water companies have come under fire for allowing the release of raw sewage into our waterways despite soaring profits, prompting the UK Government to launch a Plan for Water to “deliver clean and plentiful water – a healthy water environment, and a sustainable supply of water for people, businesses, and nature”, a plan slammed by water campaigner and pop star, Feargal Sharkey as “one of the most muddled, confused bits of strategy and policy I have seen in some time”.
The state of our rivers
Despite the Plan reporting that 40% of the pressure impacting water bodies in England comes from “pollution from agriculture and rural land” and that “only 22% of lakes and 12% of our protected freshwater rivers and streams are in favourable condition principally due to nutrient pollution from wastewater and agriculture”, the UK Government’s legally binding target under the Environment Act is a reduction of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment from agriculture entering the water environment by 40% by 2038. This seems like way too little, way too late.
Agriculture and wastewater are the leading causes of poor water quality in our rivers and agricultural phosphorus is the primary pollutant impacting the River Wye catchment from the intensive chicken farming concentrated along its English-Welsh border area. Chicken manure holds high volumes of phosphate (12 times as much as dairy slurry, as ruminants make more efficient use of the nutrients in their feed) which, when spread on adjacent or nearby fields to fertilise crops risks over-supplying the soils with nutrients and run-off into nearby watercourses causing phosphate pollution. This results in rapid algae growth, starving native plants, invertebrates and fish of oxygen and destroying the ecosystems dependent on them.
Why the Wye?
The River Wye runs for 155 miles from its source on Pumlumon mountain in mid Wales to the Severn estuary. Much of its length forms part of the border between England and Wales. Like in many other parts of the UK, agricultural intensification has loaded the soils with excessive amounts of phosphate from increasing inputs of phosphate-rich manures and manufactured fertilisers. A rapid expansion of the poultry industry in the border area of the catchment now makes it the industrial poultry capital of the UK, with more than 20 million birds being farmed in this area at any one time, 25% of the UK total.
As a result, the river has been particularly badly affected by phosphate pollution, despite Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC) designations which should ensure its protection from degradation. A primary source of this pollution is the intensive poultry units or ‘factory farms’ that make up this industry and which have proliferated around the border area of the Wye catchment. Poultry have now overtaken cattle as the main producer of manure phosphate in the catchment.
Industrial chicken production and consumption are unsustainable and environmentally damaging
95% of the 1 billion chickens farmed in the UK each year are reared in intensive poultry units (IPUs). The majority are also fast-growing breeds who reach slaughter weight in less than six weeks and are housed in huge sheds of 40,000 or more birds. This is a consolidated industry with farmers (who may already have other crop and livestock operations in place) supplied and operated by multi-national companies such as Avara, which is joint owned by American food giant Cargill. Avara provides all relevant commodities from chicks to feed, removal, slaughter and processing. Avara processes two million chickens a week at its processing plant in Hereford.
Perhaps in the hope of avoiding similar lawsuits to those in Oklahoma, USA, where Avara’s parent company Cargill faces ongoing challenges for poultry manure pollution of the Illinois River, among other water bodies, Avara announced plans last month to end the spreading of chicken manure from about 75 of its 100 supplying farms within the River Wye catchment. It is likely also the result of years of campaigning and awareness raising by local groups and individuals concerned about the impact of chicken farming on the river they know and love.
Avara’s announcement also appears to signal progress towards a previous pledge from the company not to contribute to excess phosphate in the catchment by 2025 by moving manure out of the catchment and increasing the amount processed in anaerobic digesters, which reduce the amount of waste but do not necessarily reduce its phosphate content.
An industry problem or a government one?
Avara’s only recent admissions around the impact of phosphates in chicken manure on river quality mirror those from Welsh Government, which has also only recently acted on concerns about the impact of poultry farming in the catchment by convening a SAC River Pollution Summit and action plan and putting on hold planning permission for further IPUs. In May, UK government body Natural England downgraded the River Wye’s status from “unfavourable-improving” to “unfavourable-declining”, meaning its condition is poor and worsening. This follows declines in species such as the Atlantic salmon and white-clawed crayfish.
Last week, though, the UK government has announced a relaxation in water pollution restrictions, scrapping rules that ensure that a development or project does not harm local wetlands and waterways in protected areas and sparking a debate about nutrient neutrality*. It seems our natural water environments cannot catch a break.
Will Avara’s plan work, then?
Given all the pressures facing the Wye, will Avara’s new plans to end the sale of chicken manure fertiliser in the catchment solve the problem of phosphates in the river? We fear not.
From a local perspective, this looks like very good news – one of the prime polluters has basically committed to zero future phosphate pollution in the river. But big questions remain: Where will the manure from the millions of chickens still in the catchment go? And what about the excessive levels of phosphate in the river and adjacent soils which have and are continuing to cause pollution and the decline of the river? Many campaigners are likely to continue to call for Avara to clean up its mess and pay reparations for its actions. This could be enforced by government through implementation of the Polluter Pays Principle.
Shipping manure to other parts of the country feels like a false solution. Won’t the phosphates just end up in another river catchment? We know that Avara and other chicken processors are expanding operations into other parts of the UK or operate there already and while the attention is quite justifiably on the Wye, what if we are seeing similar declines in other environments, including those that are supposed to be protected by law? The Wye is the unfortunate case study of how bad things can get.
We are calling for ‘Peak Poultry’
Phosphate pollution is an intrinsic component of intensive poultry production. Phosphate-rich crops, grown using highly hazardous pesticides in Latin America are imported to feed the huge numbers of chickens we rear in the UK, with devastating impacts on our natural environments at home. We urgently need to reduce our chicken production and consumption, transitioning to less and better meat such as that produced in agroecological poultry systems.
We have been calling for ‘Peak Poultry’. Unless poultry production and consumption rapidly peak and decline in the next 12 months, the environmental devastation at home and abroad will continue. We call on the UK and devolved governments to:
Phase out industrial chicken meat from the menu in schools and hospitals,
Introduce an immediate ban on new intensive poultry units,
Support producers to transition to agroecological and higher welfare production systems.
But we also need the regulators to step up, with the support of government
River pollution is now at crisis point in part because the regulatory authorities have failed in their duties to regulate. The impact of chicken farming in the Wye has been known for a decade or more, with industry and regulators being very slow to act. Effective implementation of existing regulations and improvements of the planning system will be essential if Avara’s action plan for the Wye is to be prevented from simply shifting the risk elsewhere. We also call on the UK and devolved governments to undertake an independent audit of the capacity and ability of their environmental regulators to effectively monitor and enforce water pollution regulations and ensure they are properly resourced well into the future. We support River Action’s Charter for Rivers and the measures needed to restore our rivers to health by 2030.
Phosphates are only one set of nutrients impacting on our rivers. Our Organic September campaign, Fixing Fertiliser, also highlights the impact on rivers and other natural ecosystems of artificial fertiliser and the nutrients it contains leaching into watercourses from farmers’ fields. Please sign our petition calling for government action to address nitrogen and its impacts.
*What is nutrient neutrality?
Nutrient neutrality is a means of ensuring that a development plan or project does not add to existing nutrient burdens within catchments, so there is no net increase in nutrients as a result of the plan or project. Where neutrality measures are needed, the purpose of these mitigation measures is to avoid impacts to the designated sites, rather than compensating for the impacts once they have occurred (Natural England, 2023).