Farms cause more river pollution than water companies


Farmers are responsible for ­polluting more rivers than water ­companies, a new report finds today, but are not earning enough money from their land to address the issue.

An analysis of Environment Agency data found that pollution from agriculture affects 40 per cent of Britain’s rivers and lakes compared with 36 per cent that are damaged through pollution from untreated wastewater run-offs.

The agency estimates that about half of all nitrates in rivers and 25 per cent of phosphorus derives from agriculture.

The report, by the think tank Onward, blamed the overuse of synthetic fertilisers that had added over a million tonnes more nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil than it could absorb.

It said that inadequate storage and processing facilities for manure was also resulting in nutrients seeping into rivers and lakes that can suffocate fish and damage vulnerable ecosystems.

But it warned that the post-Brexit regime of farming subsidies were not working well enough to incentivise or help farmers invest in the infrastructure that could reduce emissions. Currently, two fifths earn less than £25,000 of income each year and 15 per cent of all farms make a loss.

The Times Clean It Up campaign is pushing for urgent action to reduce ­pollution in rivers and restore Britain’s waterways.

The report called on ministers to launch a radical overhaul of support for the farming industry to help them ­improve the land that they manage as well as improving productivity.

“England’s farmers are polluting our environment but they can not afford to go green,” said Ned Hammond, Onward’s head of energy and environment.

“Nature-friendly farm subsidies can put farming back on a sustainable footing. But too few farmers are enrolling in the schemes because they aren’t generous or simple enough.”

Alongside water pollution, the report found that intensive agriculture was the biggest cause of biodiversity decline. Since 1970 the number of breeding farmland birds has fallen by three fifths with 18,000 miles of hedgerows cut down. Butterfly populations have ­reduced by 20 per cent since 1990.

Farming also contributes 11 per cent of Britain’s greenhouse emissions. The Climate Change Committee has warned that agriculture and land use is the most off track of all sectors for meeting future emissions targets, with none of the policy plans for the sector deemed credible.

Onward said that the government had the money within existing budgets to reform and improve the subsidy system in a way that would incentivise farmers to invest in measures that would reduce pollution and improve the environment.

It called for farmers to be paid £85 million in bonuses a year for undertaking environmental improvements on their land to protect farm profits and restore nature. It also called for a ­regenerative agriculture subsidy of £300 per hectare to encourage whole farms to switch to nature-friendly farming, rewarding them for soil carbon and biodiversity improvements.

Adam Hawksbee, deputy director of Onward and co-author of the report, said the traditional ways governments addressed pollution problems did not work with farming. “There are all sorts of harms caused by farmers but at the moment they do not have the right incentives to deal with them,” he said.

“Normally you would use the polluter pays principle but that won’t work with farming because you’d just end up putting them out of business and importing more food from overseas. What you need to implement is a complex series of reforms to support farmers’ transition to a more sustainable model.”

Hawksbee added that there was a broad consensus that environmental land management payments that are replacing the old EU-based subsidies was the right way to proceed.

Source: The Times 15th December 2023