Saturday, 16 July 2022

Wye not follow the science?

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:     

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?

The Environment Agency didn’t provide any answer to that question. McRobb wanted a frank admission that nobody is enforcing the rules.

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?