A couple of weeks ago Avara Foods invited me to have a chat with their Agricultural Director John Reed. We talked for nearly three hours and it was a fascinating conversation. Avara is responsible for over 16 million of the over 20 million birds farmed in the Wye catchment so what they do really matters.
I was surprised by their invitation but welcomed their willingness to talk directly, particularly because I was keen to scrutinise their new ‘roadmap for the future management of poultry manure’. Their headline promise is that: “By 2025, our supply chain will not contribute to excess phosphate in the River Wye”.
The fact that they’re now trying to take responsibility for the manure from their millions of chickens is welcome – but there are serious questions about how their plan will work and it is very late coming when problems on the Wye have been raised for years and a lesson from America should have prevented this situation from ever arising.
A landmark legal ruling in the United States recently found that Cargill and other poultry companies polluted the Illinois River with poultry litter. The Judge stated that the companies had known since the 1980s about the damaging effects to rivers of phosphorus in poultry manure. Back in 2004, Cargill and other poultry companies took out advertisements telling the residents of Oklahoma that they would incorporate new nutrient management standards and export more manure out of the catchment. Why has it taken over eighteen years to offer up a similar plan in the UK? Cargill has known for decades that poultry manure can damage a river system when highly concentrated in one area. Why didn’t Cargill use that knowledge to mitigate the risks in other areas, for example when they were expanding their operations on the Wye?
These are all points raised by my Guardian article today. Here I want to share a few other things that I learned from my exclusive interview with John Reed.
A major study published by scientists at Lancaster University focussed minds in the Wye catchment on quantifying phosphorus flows and identified a huge surplus of livestock manure. Reed told me he welcomes Lancaster’s work but disputes their figures. The scientists used standard DEFRA figures to calculate the amount of phosphorus in poultry manure. Avara have undertaken their own analysis. They say they asked all of their 120 farms to tell them how much manure they produce a year and they also took two samples from every farm, one of poultry litter (poultry manure mixed with bedding material) and one of pure poultry faeces, and tested them in a laboratory to obtain their phosphorus content. Reed said that due to reducing the phosphorus content of their poultry feed and breeding increasingly efficient chickens, their manure and nutrient footprint is smaller than that estimated in the Lancaster study. Avara has sent their data to Lancaster for review because they say they don’t want to be ‘marking their own homework’. Their figures have not yet been independently verified.
Avara’s roadmap says they have reduced the phosphate in their feed by 27% since 2016. Yet the company also significantly expanded their operations over that period, putting millions more birds into the Wye catchment. Reed acknowledged that the company’s expansion offset their nutrient reductions, telling me, “they kind of cancelled each other out”.
Avara pledges to introduce ‘more robust nutrient, soil and manure management standards’. If farmers in their supply chain want to use poultry manure as a fertiliser and spread it to land, Reed says they will need to prove the agronomic need. Avara has not yet determined how this will happen. Reed told me that he’s trying to figure out where this independent third-party verification will come from.
Avara don’t own the poultry farms in their supply chain, nor the anaerobic digesters who receive some of their poultry waste, so much hinges on how they will write their contracts and how they will police manure management. This merits utmost scrutiny.
Avara’s plan also involves exporting some manure out of the catchment and sending manure to a proposed new Anaerobic Digester in Herefordshire, which would be owned and run by a third party, and use a novel phosphate-stripping technology to make a fertiliser which could be more easily exported out of the catchment. The latter plan is contingent upon the project being granted planning permission and there are many concerns and objections linked to the application.
Reed said that Avara currently processes around 2 million birds a week, which is the capacity of their factory, and they have no current plans for expansion. However, he added, “I can’t promise what will happen in the future or offer any guarantee that we won’t expand.”
Christine Hugh-Jones from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales told me, “The court judgment in the US has proven that Avara’s parent company Cargill knew that they were polluting waterways decades ago. During the 13-year wait for the judgment, Cargill turned a blind eye to the known risks as it treated the Welsh Marches to the American experience, ramping up intensive poultry farming in Herefordshire and Powys. Only now, when there is a public outcry, has Avara pledged to bring its phosphate pollution of the River Wye to zero by 2025. What happens in the intervening years and what hard evidence is there that they can and will achieve this goal?”
That should be the question ringing in all of our ears. Reed also told me that he would welcome more regulation and enforcement from the Environment Agency. Will our governments and environmental agencies in England and Wales feel emboldened to step into the breach?