Dairy and beef farms are the most polluting sector, accounting for more than 40% of the total ammonia released in the UK, yet are under no obligation to mitigate or even monitor their air emissions because of a loophole in the regulations.
In the absence of official monitoring, the Bureau carried out air tests around eight dairy farms across the south of England: six intensive “megafarms” housing more than 700 cattle; one confinement unit (with some of the herd permanently housed); and one conventional outdoor farm with animals grazing.
Air tests revealed an ammonia hotspot near a slurry lagoon (Source: TBIJ)
Ammonia hotspots were detected at two of the megafarms, including adjacent to an uncovered slurry storage tank and near a farmyard, and at various points around the outdoor dairy farm, including next to a farm building, on the road running through the farm, and by a large waste lagoon.
There were slurry lagoons on most of the farms the Bureau visited, with the largest the size of swimming pools. The uncovered brown ponds of urine and faeces were mainly enclosed by barbed wire and signposted as dangerous or toxic, but one was less secure and unfenced. None of the lagoons the Bureau saw during testing was covered, which is a simple way to cut ammonia emissions from slurry by half. Defra figures from 2017 suggest that 80% of cattle slurry lagoons and tanks and 76% of those on pig farms are uncovered.
In January Gove set out a Clean Air Strategy that finally addressed ammonia and said that the loophole for intensive cattle “megafarms” would be closed by 2025, but it did not lay out any specifics for how the farms would be monitored or regulated.
Moreover, it did not set out a funding plan for the costly but simple solutions for cutting ammonia: covering up slurry tanks, and then injecting the mixture into fields, rather than spraying it. These methods have been used in other European countries for decades: Denmark has required slurry tanks to be covered for more than 30 years.
A Defra spokesperson said the Clean Air Strategy would tackle farm ammonia pollution, by requiring and supporting farmers to invest in the infrastructure and equipment required to reduce emissions. It told the Bureau it would work with the farming industry to agree on the techniques it would require, and that these conversations would inform future regulation of the cattle sector. The Bureau understands that Defra does not have a specific target for the reduction of ammonia from cattle.
Vicki Hird, food and farming campaign co-ordinator at Sustain, which campaigns on farming, says:
“Air pollution is a hidden killer, for humans and wildlife, and increasing ammonia emissions from intensive farming need to be addressed urgently. Expecting farmers to act when they are facing a flood of cheap imports after Brexit, cuts to subsidies and a seven year wait for an unknown farm support scheme is unreasonable.”
Farmers told the Bureau they would be happy to introduce such measures, but that their narrow profit margins, squeezed by the demand for cheap food, meant they could not afford them without government grants. Low profits are also pushing smaller farms out of business and forcing surviving farmers to intensify.
“Supermarkets have got to be paying more. They have to pay a realistic price for the product the farming community is producing,” said one dairy farmer. “Thousands of milk producers have gone out of business this year and the ones that are left will just get bigger and bigger.”
The National Farmers’ Union said farmers wanted to cut their environmental impact but needed more assistance from the government.
“Farmers don’t want the nitrogen [from ammonia] going into the air, it’s no use to them there — they need it on the crops,” said Guy Smith, deputy president of the NFU. He added that farmers were keen to improve their performance on environmental issues, but “current assistance [from the government] is not adequate, and difficult to access.”
Another dairy farmer who keeps 480 cows, some housed year round, said it came down to cost.
“Pay a better price for the product we produce,” he said. “If the milk price went up by 10 or 15% we could all look after the environment a lot better. But we don’t get anything for it.”
Ammonia from slurry pollution also has serious effects on wildlife in the areas surrounding the farms. Read the Bureau’s report from Gregynog in mid-Wales.
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Andrew Wasley is an award-winning investigative journalist specialising in food and farming issues.
Alexandra Heal joined the Bureau in 2018 after completing an MA in Investigative Journalism at City University in London.
Mie Lainio is a journalism and human rights student at Sodestorn University funded by the EU’s Erasmus programme to work with the Bureau.
Featured image is from TBIJ