River Action targets agri-businesses in campaign to stop pollution

New group has written to Noble Foods near River Wye, where chemical runoffs are said to be causing serious damage.

The heads of some of the biggest agricultural suppliers are being targeted in a campaign to stop their activities polluting rivers.

River Action, a new group focusing on the state of UK rivers, is launching its first campaign by writing to the chief executive of Noble Foods, one of the biggest egg producers operating around the River Wye, where pollution from increasing numbers of free range poultry farms is said to be seriously damaging the river.

The Guardian reported last week that there have been no prosecutions or fines issued to farms by the Environment Agency (EA) despite 243 violations of legislation designed to curb the agricultural pollution of waterways in England.

River Action’s founder and chairman, Charles Watson, said: “It is in this absence of effective regulation that we have launched River Action. Specifically, we believe that the time has come for the large agri-businesses that procure product from our farmers and supply our retailers to assume their fair share of the responsibility for cleaning up agricultural pollution. These are often large profitable businesses – who without exception proclaim publicly their commitment to responsible and sustainable business practices. River Action intends to hold them to account.”

The scale of pollution in English rivers from the agricultural runoff of chemicals and sewage pollution was exposed last year when just 14 % of them were rated as being in a healthy condition. In 2020, for the first time, no river achieved good chemical status, suggesting that pollution from chemicals and agriculture is having a huge impact on river quality.

Sewage wastewater discharges by water companies into rivers account for damage to 36% of waterways, and runoff from agricultural industries is responsible for 40% of the damage, according to the EA.

The Wye is feared to be one of the worst-affected rivers. A report by the Campaign for Rural England in 2019 said there were 500 farms with a total of 1,420 intensive poultry sheds, containing over 44 million birds around the counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Radnorshire, raising concerns about pollution of water systems.

Natural Resources Wales has published data that states that 60% of the Wye is in ecological crisis.

Noble Foods supplies eggs to leading supermarkets under the brand name Happy Egg Co. In a letter to Duncan Everett, CEO of Noble Foods, River Action is asking for details of the mitigation the company takes to prevent “highly damaging nutrient runoffs” into the river and the amount spent on such programmes.

Former Conservative environment minister Richard Benyon, who is on the advisory board of River Action, along with Guardian writer George Monbiot and Feargal Sharkey, said:“Urgent action is needed to reduce the impacts of agriculture and food production on our rivers before it is too late. As consumers and investors become increasingly environmentally aware, food companies need to step up and take responsibility for the practices of those in their supply chain.”

A spokesperson for Noble Foods said: “We take our responsibility to protect the environment extremely seriously and we have been working in close collaboration with the Wye-Agri Food Partnership and the Usk and Wye Rivers Trust soil erosion group to develop long-term solutions to this complex situation that affects the entire agriculture industry. It is our aim to deliver a plan that can be successfully implemented across the farming sector.”

Source:  The Guardian 18th February 2021