Saturday, 16 July 2022
Scientists at Lancaster University recently published a paper with significant findings for the Wye catchment.
Offering a systemic analysis of all the phosphorus inputs and outputs in the area, the RePhoKUs team found an excess of 3,000 tonnes of phosphorus accumulating every year. That’s 3,000 tonnes more phosphorus than the land can absorb, year after year. The soils are full of legacy phosphorus. Some are calling this problem ‘Phosmageddon’. As this excess nutrient leaches into rivers, it becomes an ingredient for algal blooms.
The scientists discovered that the vast majority (78%) of phosphorus imported into the catchment arrives in the form of animal feed. The vast majority of phosphorus applied to the soil comes from animal manure (82%). The largest livestock sector in the catchment is poultry, with over 20 million chickens. We have a problem caused by intensive farming which imports feed (including soya) grown on the other side of the world, feeds it to millions of chickens crammed into industrial sheds, and then spreads their waste on over-saturated land.
Systemic change is required to redress this imbalance. The study authors stress the need to tackle the ‘manure mountain’ and recommend a reduction in livestock numbers and new systems to process manure so that it can be exported out of the area. Their recommendations illustrate the scale of change required, for example suggesting a 75% reduction of fertiliser use, plus an 80% reduction in pig and poultry manure, plus cutting 50% of all cattle manure.
So how has the Nutrient Management Board reacted to this landmark study?
They don’t question the science. In fact, a representative from Natural England said it was the best scientific research they can expect on this subject. The Chair, Elissa Swinglehurst, praised its readability and contribution to overall understanding.
It fell to Merry Albright, a local housebuilder, to ask the board:
Why aren’t we using the recommendations? Do we need an action to say they need to be looked at, because they’re huge amounts?
3 thousand tonnes is 3 million kilogrammes. The Luston wetland [planned by Herefordshire Council in part for phosphorus-mitigation] will have an environmental benefit of 40kg – so the amount we need to save is way bigger than any action on the table.
No compelling answer was forthcoming.
All the pertinent questions were posed by members of the public.
Andrew McRobb from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England asked:
The Environment Agency didn’t provide any answer to that question. McRobb wanted a frank admission that nobody is enforcing the rules.
If in the Farming Rules for Water it says that no excess nutrient should be put on greater than the crop need or the soil need, I have a dilemma – we’re putting 3000 [excess] tonnes a year on, why isn’t that contrary to the Farming Rules for Water and why isn’t action being taken?
James Marsden then stressed the need to talk about ‘total poo’, as per the RePhoKUs report and its recommendations:
I haven’t heard that anybody is seriously contemplating or looking at that. Until we reduce total poo or the amount of pee in the poo, we’re not going anywhere, are we? Why aren’t we talking about reducing livestock numbers across the catchment?
The Chair said, “that’s definitely a recommendation”.
You don’t get the sense that anybody wants to hear, let alone act upon, that recommendation.
Watching the Nutrient Management Board members at that point (2 hours and 28 minutes into the meeting) is telling. It looks like collective avoidance. To be fair, Ann Weedy from Natural Resources Wales says, “Watch this space”. But watching NRW often feels like precisely that, looking at a space where an effective body should be, so I’m not too hopeful of what action will follow.
Barrister Alex Goodman, who is representing Herefordshire residents fighting their council’s decision to grant planning permission to an intensive livestock unit, has elsewhere suggested that the area could:
Adopt a precautionary policy on planning permission for developments that load more phosphates and nitrates into the river.
Revoke or condition existing planning permissions for developments polluting the river (subject to compensation).
Provided poultry farmers and other intensive livestock farmers are properly compensated, it’s difficult to see a downside to this proposal.
Will the people with power consider enacting such a policy? When will they follow the science?
Thursday, 14 July 2022
I was glad to be part of this investigation for the Guardian, alongside Robin Eveleigh and Tom Levitt.
The story is largely based on the brilliant work of Alison Caffyn, who crunched all the numbers and researched the history of Avara’s development in Herefordshire.
Will Tesco and Avara take responsibility for their pollution on the Wye and clean up their supply chain?
Sunday, 10 July 2022
I made this short film with my friend and colleague Eamon Bourke for Friends of the Upper Wye to celebrate our river guardians.
I’ve previously reported on the appalling pollution of the Afon Llynfi which killed over 45,000 fish.
This film highlights how some local people responded to that crime (for which nobody has been caught) by volunteering to monitor the river. They hope their sustained attention will be a deterrent to any polluters.
While the environment agencies have cut back on statutory monitoring over the past decade due to government slashing their budgets, people have stepped forward as citizen scientists to fill the gap.
Whilst I despair at how the Wye is being colossally failed by politicians and the statutory bodies charged with protecting it, I find tremendous hope in the actions of ordinary people.
This premiered at Hay Castle on 10 July, as part of Lift The River.
Thursday, 12 May 2022
It was a pleasure to be part of this discussion about the health of our rivers. We were broadcasting live from the River Wye, at Glasbury, and I was on a panel with James Hitchcock, CEO of Radnorshire Wildlife Trust, and Sarah James, a local poultry farmer. We were interviewed by Craig Bennett and also joined by Feargal Sharkey via Zoom.
Whilst the event was live-streamed, it’s still available on YouTube.
Saturday, 9 April 2022
I’m delighted to be chairing two events at this year’s Hay Festival.
On Monday 30th May I will be in conversation with Candice Brathwaite, Joeli Brearley and Anna Kent to explore how we can have better births. Kent has written an extraordinarily moving memoir, Frontline Midwife, about her experiences in South Sudan, Bangladesh and the NHS. Brathwaite addresses the higher maternal mortality rates for black women in Britain. Brearley highlights the traumatic and isolated experiences of women on maternity wards throughout the Covid pandemic.
On Saturday 4th June, I’ll be interviewing George Monbiot and Feargal Sharkey about the shameful state of our polluted rivers and what needs to be done to clean them up.
Monday, 4 April 2022
Here’s the website for the Not Morning Sickness campaign. All credit to my fellow campaigner Charlotte Howden for pulling this together. We officially launched last week to a flurry of coverage.
I was interviewed by Emma Barnett on Woman’s Hour – and they shared a video clip of my interview on their Twitter and Instagram.
I also penned an article for Grazia about the campaign and why it matters.
Charlotte has shared her story in the Metro and the period-tracker app Flo have also run a piece by Chloe Lovell on why we need to stop saying morning sickness, including some quotes from me.
Monday, 1 November 2021
I’ve wanted to write this piece about pregnancy sickness for yonks arguing that it shouldn’t be called ‘morning sickness’ because the term is inaccurate, misleading and trivialises the suffering of women. I’ve endured months of all-day-all-night sickness in two pregnancies and can tell you that peoples’ misconceptions that it was just a ‘morning sickness’ added insult to injury.
I’m grateful that the Independent commissioned this and gave me a platform to make my argument. I’m even more thrilled that over the weekend the powerhouse that is Joeli Brearley shared my article on her Pregnant Then Screwed Instagram account – and it was met with widespread support.
I know that there are a lot of problems in the world but this one has an easy fix: just change the language! It’s time to ditch ‘morning sickness’ for good. I feel galvanised by the support and energy of other women so hopefully we can work this up into a proper campaign to make real and lasting change.
Monday, 18 October 2021
I’m delighted to be chairing an event at the Hay Festival’s Winter Weekend on Saturday 27 November at 7pm – interviewing the writer Owen Sheers about his new BBC One drama ‘The Trick’, based on the ClimateGate Affair, when climate scientists had their emails hacked and selectively published back in 2009. We’ll also be joined by one of the scientists at the centre of the furore, Professor Trevor Davies from the University of East Anglia.
There’s so much to discuss, the challenge will be deciding what questions to prioritise for the hour we have. You can join us in person or online and tickets are on sale now.
Thursday, 15 July 2021
As part of my research for Rivercide, I’ve spent a lot of time digging into exactly how many chickens there are in the Wye catchment.
The stars of our programme were Christine Hugh-Jones, an activist with the Brecon and Radnor branch of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, and Alison Caffyn, who wrote her PhD thesis at Cardiff University about the intensive poultry industry.
Christine and Alison have been keeping a tally of chicken numbers in the counties of Powys in Wales and Herefordshire in England by trawling through all the planning applications on the councils’ websites and records – and doing further research, including by Google satellite, to check on whether older units are still in operation or not.
They undertook this forensic and painstaking work because they couldn’t see that anybody else was doing it. They believe that the cumulative impact of all these birds in a concentrated area matters – for ammonia impacts, for risks of avian flu, for its effect on the environment and local residents and for the levels of chicken manure that contribute to the overload of phosphorous in the Wye and its tributaries.
Christine and Alison estimate that there are around 20 million chickens in the Wye catchment.
Christine counted over 10 million birds in Powys, with over 4 million of them residing in the Wye catchment area.
Alison totted up the total number of birds in Herefordshire and estimates that there are over 17 million, with just under 16 million in the Wye catchment’s area of the county.
They turned their data into a very helpful map showing the locations of the intensive poultry units with information about how many buildings and birds were registered at each spot.
I wanted to know whether the authorities had any comparable records or official data.
Natural Resources Wales told me that they don’t monitor the total number of chickens in the Wye catchment. Nor do they have a map of the poultry units. However, units with more than 40,000 birds require a permit to operate and NRW have records for those. They told me that their 30 units with permits in the Welsh Wye catchment have a total of 4.5 million places, though pointed out that not all these units will be fully stocked at all times. That said, they stressed, “it’s important to note that poultry units which house over 40,000 chickens make up a small proportion of the total number of poultry units in the catchment. The overall number of chickens housed in the catchment is therefore significantly higher than the 4.5m housed in permitted units. We don’t hold information on the number of chickens in the unpermitted units as we don’t have a direct role in monitoring those units under current regulations.”
Did you get that? NRW say that there are ‘significantly’ more than 4.5 million chickens on the Welsh side of the Wye catchment. So their estimate exceeds Christine’s!
Powys County Council simply said that they don’t hold the data I requested and suggested that I could search for poultry on their log of planning applications. This would entail doing the laborious work that Christine and her comrades have already done. Clearly nobody at Powys County Council is even attempting to keep count, which begs the question, how on earth can they assess the cumulative impact of poultry developments? The answer is that they can’t.
Meanwhile on the English side of the border, I recently received some rather illuminating responses.
The Environment Agency told me that, like Natural Resources Wales, they only have records for their permitted sites, which are those containing over 40,000 birds. They said they have 84 permitted sites in Herefordshire with an estimated total of 16,891,696 birds. Again, as this figure doesn’t include the smaller poultry units, the true total will be higher. They don’t have a breakdown for the Wye catchment but I note that their total for the county, just in the permitted units, is approaching 17 million making Alison’s estimate of over 17 million chickens for all sizes of units in the whole of Herefordshire look conservative.
Herefordshire Council have been working hard to find out how many chickens could be in the county – revealing, in the process, that they haven’t expressed much curiosity before and clearly haven’t been keeping count. A dereliction of their planning duty to assess cumulative impact. Still, last week they shared data which they obtained from Defra’s Animal and Plant Health Agency which keeps records for the purpose of assessing for animal disease outbreaks and the like. From this data, they’ve estimated that there are approximately 16 million chickens in Herefordshire, including small producers as well as large commercial units. This breaks down as: 14,543,420 meat rearing chickens; 606,931 egg laying chickens; and 1,088,372 breeding for egg laying.
So those figures are a little lower than the Environment Agency’s figures, but still in the same ballpark and add weight to Alison’s estimates.
The most extraordinary part of all this is that the Nutrient Management Board – a body set up in 2014 to address the concentration of phosphorous in the river Wye – released a draft Nutrient Management Plan a few weeks ago which stated:
“There are 195 Intensive Poultry Units in the Wye catchment, with more than 9m birds generating 2040 tonnes of phosphate per year, most of which is spread on farmland as fertiliser”
I suppose “more than 9 million” could mean 20 million. But it seems rather disingenuous.
Where did that figure come from? Were the authors of the Nutrient Management Action Plan deliberately seeking to misrepresent the scale of the intensive poultry industry in the Wye catchment or are they that ignorant of the facts?
Either way, it’s a damning example of institutional failure.
PS – I’d really like to know the source for that 9 million. Where did it come from? Please contact me if you know!
UPDATE: I’ve since been informed that the 9 million figure in the NMB’s draft report was based on 2010 farm census data and has now been removed. It’s likely that their forthcoming report will confirm that there are an estimated 20 million birds in the Wye catchment.
Tuesday, 23 February 2021
I’m delighted to have two pieces in the March/April edition of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, which has a river theme.
The first is a short piece promoting Rivercide, the live investigative documentary I’m making with George Monbiot and Franny Armstrong – and that’s free to read online at this link.
The second is a feature about the groundbreaking citizens science project run by the Ilkley Clean River campaign, telling the story of how they meticulously gathered evidence about the levels of e-coli in the river Wharfe and used this information to lobby for designated bathing water status – and won! I was very inspired by my conversations with Karen Shackleton and Professor Rick Battarbee and they offer a template for action for other groups across the country.
Monday, 26 October 2020
I’m thrilled to be producing a documentary with the environmental journalist George Monbiot and legendary director Franny Armstrong called Rivercide – about the shocking state of Britain’s polluted rivers and what we can do to help clean them up!
We’re planning a live investigative documentary for streaming broadcast in July 2021. We’re making it independently and crowdfunding production costs.
I’m researching all things rivers – so please get in touch if you have a story about pollution or are part of a group proposing solutions.
Monday, 21 September 2020
At the end of July 2020, a small river in Wales – the Llynfi, a tributary of the Wye which runs along the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park near Talgarth – suffered a devastating pollution incident which killed over 10,000 fish and wiped out much invertebrate life in the river. I am determined to discover what caused this pollution. This is the third acute pollution incident on the same stretch of river since 2016.
Here’s my first article for Countryfile Magazine. My investigation continues.
Wednesday, 22 July 2020
Following my feature about sail cargo for the Guardian, I was invited to contribute a paper to a special edition of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology about the role of windpower in decarbonising the shipping industry.
The piece examines using sails as a primary means of propulsion – after all, not so long ago all global trade used to travel by sail. It also explores using windpower as a form of wind-assistance to reduce fuel.
Unfortunately, being for a Journal, this paper is behind a paywall – but there are plans to convert this edition of the journal into a book published by Wiley.
Wednesday, 6 May 2020
I really enjoyed writing this for the Guardian and was very inspired by my conversations with Cate Cody, Ander Zabala and Claudi Williams. They’ve inspired me to implement some simple changes in my life to reduce my waste.
When I searched online for people aspiring to live ‘zero waste’ I found Instagram and YouTube ‘influencers’ monetising their content by promoting different products. I was uncomfortable with the commercialisation of low-impact living. It perpetuates a consumer mindset and suggests that you can buy your way into a more ethical life. It also looks very middle-class. Whereas, fundamentally, striving to live with less waste is really about buying less of everything and making do with what you have.
I wanted to know how on earth Cate hasn’t put her bin out in over 3 years and how Ander managed to create 99% less waste than the average household last year – and the resounding answer was that they just don’t buy stuff in non-recyclable packaging. Claudi told me that she hasn’t bought a box of cereal for over four years and makes her own muesli instead. They generally don’t buy biscuits or crisps or chocolate bars with wrappers that would end up in the trash. This discipline has become their way of life.
Avoiding packaging brings other benefits. I noticed that the ‘naughtiest’ aisles in the supermarkets are most full of packaging. If you avoid packaging, you’ll eat less processed food and probably eat more healthily. It also pushes you towards local and seasonal food, as that tends to be more available unpackaged.
I’m already lucky to shop largely package-free at my local farm shop. I get all my fresh fruit and veg loose, and can stock up on frozen treats with reusable bags too. I buy milk in returnable glass bottles. The outstanding waste repeat-offenders in my bin are biscuit and chocolate wrappers and cereal bags. It would do us good to reduce our biscuit consumption anyway and this week I made some delicious vegan cookies. The mixture only took a couple of minutes to put together and under 15 minutes in the oven, so perhaps if I really want biscuits, I should just make my own. Reducing waste means making more stuff from scratch but it’s also empowering to master new skills and I appreciate home-cooked food more.
I’ve now swapped my sponge for a loofah and it’s a joy to wash up with. I often felt guilty about all the old sponges I was chucking in the bin for landfill so am delighted to find a compostable option. I’ve started using the wild mint growing in the garden for herbal tea and it’s delicious, so no need to buy expensive herbal tea at this time of year.
I must confess that I haven’t yet mastered making my own oat milk. I had a go and enjoyed the sensation of squeezing it through the muslin cloth (oats make your hands feel so soft), but it tasted pretty disgusting on my cereal. It was slimy and miserably austere and needed sweetening for my taste. I might need to try making a blend with rice in too. I’ll persevere and have another go.
Monday, 24 June 2019
I’ve been pretty quiet for the last few months whilst on maternity leave, apart from a writing a few articles reviewing baby products for the Telegraph.
After having my baby, I was dismayed by how many disposable nappies I was throwing away and haunted by the idea that this pile of waste would take hundreds of years to decompose, far outliving my child. I wanted to switch to reusables but didn’t know where to start. I couldn’t find any decent, reliable consumer journalism which had independently tried, tested and compared reusable nappies. Even Which hadn’t done that work. So I set about doing it myself. I spent months using a wide range of reusable nappies, in order to recommend the best nappies for different circumstances. I hope it’s of real use.
I learned so much along the way that I also added a long FAQ to help others get started with reusables. The truth is, they’re really easy to use and they're much cheaper than disposables in the long-run, but parents need the chance to try them out themselves to see this firsthand and have the confidence to make the upfront investment. Because reusable nappies aren’t generally sold in supermarkets they’re not very visible in society and therefore seem difficult and mysterious. My top tip to anyone interested in trying reusables (apart from reading my article) is to find your nearest nappy library (run by volunteers) and try some out. Alternatively (or additionally), fill out the Nappy Lady’s Questionnaire about your circumstances and receive tailored advice as to which nappies are likely to be best for your baby.
I also reviewed travel cots, high chairs, and baby monitors.
Thursday, 9 August 2018
Following last year’s documentary Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad, the director Sara Afshar and I made an update report for C4 News returning to the same themes. In it we exclusively revealed new evidence which has been uncovered by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. The documents – internal communications from Military Intelligence (one of the Syrian regime’s security and intelligence agencies) – show that it was known that detainees were being tortured and that the numbers dying were rising. The Head of Syria’s Military Intelligence even asked to be informed of every detainee death and consulted on what to do with some of the corpses. Furthermore, CIJA’s investigators matched death reports from the head of detention facility 227 referring to individual prisoners with prisoner numbers to the corpse numbers and detention facility numbers pictured in the Caesar photographs. This appears to provide further corroboration of the Caesar photographs by the regime’s own documentation.
Monday, 25 September 2017
Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, explains the significance of the Caesar photographs:
One irony of the Syrian war is that while the Assad government flouts the most basic rules of international humanitarian law, it never openly admits doing so. It denies that it barrel bombs or gasses civilians. It pretends that it lets necessities reach people in besieged areas. And it bars independent access to the worst of its detention facilities where the bulk of the torture and execution takes place.
It is in that context of denial that the Caesar photos are so important. No one seeing the photographs of more than six thousand brutalized corpses can deny that something utterly inhumane has been taking place inside that closed prison system. Survivors can describe that hell on earth, but the photographs speak with an unimpeachable directness that compels us to understand the utter cruelty of the Syrian detention system.
Roth’s full remarks merit reading. I was honoured last week that my documentary, ‘Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad’ (which I co-produced with director Sara Afshar), was screened in Courtroom 600 in Nuremberg, where the Nuremberg Trials took place. The film played in the same spot where images from the Holocaust were presented to the courtroom over 70 years ago. This launched the programme leading up to the presentation of the award to Caesar for his courage in delivering essential evidence to the outside world. His courageous act deserves more than awards. It demands action to prevent the continuing deaths in detention and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Wednesday, 14 June 2017
As the UK election results were announced, I marvelled at the waning power of the press. Voters defied the press’ predictions and exposed their failures. As Monbiot writes:
The rightwing press threw everything it had at Jeremy Corbyn, and failed to knock him over. In doing so, it broke its own power. Its wild claims succeeded in destroying not Corbyn’s credibility but its own.
This is particularly significant because, as Monbiot notes, the rightwing press tends to set the news agenda for the broadcasters. I have written about this before, drawing on my own experience at the BBC.
I was interested to see George Osborne acknowledging the power of press, as he recently told Nick Robinson:
I do think newspapers in Britain in particular set the tone, if I may say so, partly because we have the BBC as a big, very impartial in its charter, state broadcaster and as a result I think quite often the BBC follows a newspaper agenda a bit because it doesn’t necessarily want to go out on a limb itself… So I do think newspapers create a climate in which the election takes place.
The BBC must consider how it can better represent the public and shake off the shackles of a skewed media field.
Tuesday, 13 June 2017
Thanks to John Oliver’s show, my attention was drawn to Boris Johnson’s description of the UK government’s approach to Brexit:
Our policy is having our cake and eating it.
And to Donald Tusk’s riposte:
I propose a simple experiment. Buy a cake, eat it, and see if it is still there on the plate.
There will be no cakes on the table, for anyone. There will be only salt and vinegar.
Saturday, 15 April 2017
Decca Aitkenhead perfectly skewers David Cameron’s former advisor Steve Hilton in this interview by exposing the limits of his thoughtfulness. And for a man who fashions himself as a blue-sky thinker, this is doubly embarrassing and revealing.
I urge you to read the interview in full, but here is where the exquisite cognitive dissonance begins:
And then I ask one simple question, and the whole story he tells about himself unravels. Do he and his family deserve their wealth? He stares at me in surprise.
“Er … I think we definitely both work really hard.” Sure, but do they deserve their level of wealth? “Well … such a good question. I’m just trying to think.” He falls silent for 11 seconds, searching his mind for an answer that doesn’t undermine everything he’s been saying.
This continues for a painfully long time, with Hilton grasping for an answer. Aitkenhead says he becomes ‘unquotably inarticulate’.
But do they deserve their wealth? “I don’t even think that’s the right way to think about it.”
A perfect illustration of Upton Sinclair’s quote:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
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