Tuesday, 25 October 2022

Two-thirds of cattle farms in North Devon found to be polluting at time of inspection

I have an exclusive story in the Guardian today which reveals that an Environment Agency officer inspected 101 cattle farms in North Devon between 2016 and 2020 and found 87% were not compliant with environmental regulations and 65% were polluting at the time of inspection.

When I was working on Rivercide, I spent a lot of time talking to people about a report which covered the Axe catchment in East Devon. Yet I never knew that there was another report with similar findings.

I have no idea why the North Devon Focus Area Report remained under the radar while the Axe report was published. Were the two reports taken together too embarrassing for the government, the dairy industry and the Red Tractor label? If any insider knows the rationale, I’d love to hear it.

Both reports tell the same story – under intense commercial pressure, dairy farms have expanded their herd sizes and pushed cows to produce more milk. More cows producing more milk produce more slurry, and yet farmers generally haven’t invested in increasing their storage capacity to safely hold the extra waste.

This raises serious questions for the large milk buyers and supermarkets. Why aren’t they insisting on basic environmental standards being met and paying farmers a fair price to deliver them?

The Red Tractor logo is meant to assure consumers that their products are ‘farmed with care’ and yet every farm visited in the Axe report and “nearly every farm” visited in the North Devon report was Red Tractor Assured. In other words, the Red Tractor logo doesn’t seem to offer any protection against river pollution.

I obtained the North Devon report through a Freedom of Information request to the Environment Agency and it was edited before release. I don’t know all the edits that were made, but I know one. They removed the line: ‘Red Tractor is not effective at assuring farms are meeting environmental regulations’.

Why did the EA or DEFRA take this line out? To protect Red Tractor by avoiding overtly criticising the scheme? The same line appears in the published Axe report, so it’s an odd omission. I asked the DEFRA press office why they made the edit and they told me:

The report was reviewed and checked alongside FOI guidance before release.

The Red Tractor scheme is not a scheme that Defra or the Environment Agency have a duty to regulate. As such, comments on the scheme fall outside the scope of the report.