In England, agriculture and rural land management are responsible for the most water pollution incidents and the main issue preventing lakes and rivers achieving ‘good’ status. According to Environment Agency data, it is responsible for more than half of total pollution incidents; more than wastewater and towns, cities and transport pollution combined.
Key pollutants from industrial animal farming include:
- Hydrogen Sulfide (which causes extreme odours for downwind residents, and contributes to acid rain and regional haze)
- Ammonia (which causes respiratory problems in farm workers and neighbours)
- Particulate pollution (which can trigger asthma and heart attacks)
- Volatile organic compounds - VOCs (which can cause headaches, nausea, and increased risk of cancer)
Within England, livestock production is estimated to be responsible for 60% of nitrate pollution and 25% of phosphorus pollution of waterways. 55% of the land in England is at risk of nitrate pollution. Synthetic fertilisers used to grow chicken feed crops contain high levels of nitrogen. Chickens excrete this nitrogen in manure, which may be spread on local land as fertiliser. Unabsorbed nitrogen then leaches from the soil into groundwater, which can contaminate sources of drinking water and damage aquatic and marine ecosystems. About 96% of nitrogen-sensitive habitats in England receive more Nitrogen than they can cope with.
Agriculture accounts for 88% of the UK’s ammonia emissions. The key sources are storage and spreading of manures, slurries and fertilisers, chicken ranging areas, intensive poultry units, livestock housing, and spreading of digestate. There are high background levels of ammonia in the UK in the air and in waterways. High ammonia in the air can cause damage to human cardiovascular and respiratory systems, particularly when combined with other pollutants such as diesel fumes.
Ammonia pollution can lead to soil acidification, direct toxic damage to leaves, and can alter the susceptibility of plants to frost, drought and pathogens. Airbourne ammonia pollution has a significant impact on ancient woodland. The Woodland Trust reported in 2021 that 70- 80% of broadleaved woodland habitat in the UK exceeds the critical levels of ammonia. Impacts upon SSSIs, ancient woodlands, local wildlife sites and irreplaceable habitats must be considered in planning and are material considerations.
The Food system (including farming, manufacturing and transport) is responsible for a third of UK GHG emissions. Even if all other sources of GHGs stopped completely, emissions from the food system will use up our entire budget for 1.5 degrees. Changing our diets, and particularly reducing the amount of meat and dairy we produce and consume is essential - According to the Committee on Climate Change, a 20-50% reduction in all meat and dairy consumption by 2050 is required to meet our statutory climate targets. For this to happen, livestock numbers, production and consumption of the most high-carbon foods need to be replaced with healthier, more sustainable foods.
In the UK, we eat twice amount of the global average of meat and dairy, and twice as much as is considered optimal for our health. The intensification of livestock production in a bid to reduce emissions leads to negative consequences for food security, animal welfare, water pollution, biodiversity, antibiotics use and more frequent disease in intensive livestock production. Importing large amounts of feed, including soy from south America means intensive UK meat and dairy has high food miles.
Instead, the Committee on Climate Change advise a switch to agroecological farming and sourcing protein from a diverse range of sustainable crops. A switch to more plant-based products through an increase in the intake of cereals, vegetables, pulses and legumes is more sustainable. A switch to agroecological farming in the UK could reduce emissions by 38 per cent and offset the remaining 60 per cent of emissions through afforestation.
Industrial livestock production poses a number of risks to health, including:
- Infectious and foodborne disease: four of the top five causes of foodborne illnesses are linked to animal agriculture. Foodborne illnesses of animal origin are not unique to intensive livestock, but close crowding of animals facilitates immunosuppression and the spread of some non-commensal pathogens, such as Salmonella and E. coli 0157
- Antimicrobial resistance: Resistant bacteria have been found in water downstream of industrial livestock production units.
- Zoonotic disease transmission: Both poultry and swine carry influenza viruses. Mutated strains of these viruses could cause a pandemic amongst humans, and indeed there is reason to think that this is a reasonable probability. A 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic was of swine origin, and the 1918 “Spanish Flu,” which may have killed as many as 100 million people, is thought to be of animal origin. The latest outbreak of avian flu has spread to wild birds and mammals in the UK.
- Workers in industrial livestock operations suffer respiratory disease and irritation, hearing loss and musculoskeletal problems.
- Living near an intensive livestock production facility comes with increased risk of respiratory diseases such as asthma, zoonotic diseases, mood disorders including anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances attributable to malodorous compounds.
- Open water swimming has surged in popularity in recent years and offers physical and mental health benefits. Unfortunately, there is only one inland waterway considered safe to swim in England. Intensive agriculture is the most common source of water pollution in the UK.
Diets rich in animal products - which are facilitated by if not dependent upon intensive livestock production models - contribute significantly to our growing burden of chronic disease and preventable death. Diets containing few or no animal products are associated with positive outcomes for cardiovascular disease; obesity; type-2 diabetes; prostate, breast and colon cancer; and all-cause mortality as compared to high meat diets. Vegan and vegetarian diets may also be protective against diabetes.
Industrial livestock production is wildly unpopular. A localised food economy delivers proven economic, social and environmental benefits, but these characteristics are not evident in industrial livestock developments.
- The overwhelming majority of Brits (78%) stated that they “strongly oppose the use of typical factory farming practises to produce cheap food”
- 69 percent of UK adults see factory farming as prioritizing profits over tackling the climate emergency
- Two-thirds of people living in the UK think that factory farming puts profits before human health, perhaps due to attitudes relating to the COVID-19 pandemic
- Less than 15% of people know that almost all chickens reared in the UK are factory farmed, while the majority think that chickens are killed at 3-6 months old. In reality, they are slaughtered at just six weeks.
- Along the River Wye, residents, wildlife groups, science groups, recreational anglers and others have joined together to highlight the grave environmental and social consequences of industrial chicken farming in the catchment.
- In the USA, there is a growing movement calling for public subsidies to make human food affordable, not animal food.
- In Spain, industrial livestock production is causing rural populations to drop as people escape polluted air and water
- The Welsh government has recently signalled its intent to monitor and reduce phosphorous pollution (linked to factory farming) off the back of overwhelming public pressure surrounding the health of the river Wye.
Almost half of Britain’s natural biodiversity has disappeared. The conversion of natural ecosystems for crop production or pasture has been the principal cause of habitat loss, in turn reducing biodiversity.
A ‘business-as-usual' approach to livestock production and consumption threatens the habitats of more than 17,000 species globally. Industrial meat production leads to biodiversity loss in four key ways:
- Land requirement, including for feed: 40% of the UK’s prime cropland is used to grow food for livestock instead of people, which could be growing feed for people directly. Additionally, we import feed from abroad, usually crops grown on recently deforested land. Research last year from WWF linked meat in European diets with widespread deforestation and conversion of habitats in South America.
- Pollution: Industrial livestock production generates waste and contaminates air and water, which reduces the quality of the environment for ecosystems.
- Risks from disease: The latest outbreak of avian flu has killed rare wild birds and infected mammals in the UK.
- Climate change: Industrial livestock contributes GHG emissions, which is altering ecosystems and negatively impacts biodiversity
(note: The amount of soy meal needed for the consumption of different types of livestock products in the EU is highest for poultry (967 grams/kg) and pork (648 grams/kg) compared to other meat and livestock products. So, a simple replacement of one emissions-intensive meat for another will increase our dependency on imported protein crops and do little to reduce emissions.)
Intensive livestock is an incredibly inefficient use of land. Growing high-protein pulses, nuts, grains and peas generates more than triple the calories per hectare than the most high-yield, intensive animal products. The greatest benefits for biodiversity come from producing less and better meat (and mirroring this change in consumption). Producing smaller amounts of meat, alongside more fruit and vegetables, cereals and fish, through agroecological systems has a demonstrable benefit for wildlife and biodiversity, as well as ‘ecosystem services’ like carbon sequestration, clean water, clean air and flood protection, without loss of yield.
WWF’s 2022 Future of Feed study reported that:
- 40% of the UK’s most productive agricultural land is used to grow food for farm animals instead of people
- Half of the UK's wheat harvest each year (equivalent to 11bn loaves of bread) is being used to feed livestock
- Oats grown in the UK to feed livestock each year makes up a third of our annual oat harvest and would be enough to produce nearly 6 billion bowls of porridge.
- Dairy and meat products provide only 32% of calories consumed in the UK, and less than half (48%) of protein, but – by contrast – livestock and their feed make up 85% of the UK’s total land use for agriculture
Indirectly, high-GHG foods drive biodiversity loss through contributing to climate change. Climate change affects biodiversity by changing habitat suitability. This causes sensitive species to die out, or prompts them to move to new locations as other species move in. As natural ecosystems lose and gain species in response to climate change, the resilience of whole ecosystems is affected.
Economic and sustainable development
The intensive livestock production industry is highly consolidated: production companies control the entire process, from feed mills to meat processing. The majority of Britain’s poultry meat is produced by a small number of multinational companies including Faccenda, Moy Park, Cargill, 2 Sisters and Banham Poultry.
Based on our assessment of factory farm planning applications in the UK, new intensive livestock developments create 1-2 new jobs on average, which are often low paid. The key role for a worker is walking through sheds and removing sick or dead animals. Sustain found that the farmers themselves receive a pittance from mainstream intensive livestock supply chains, with supermarkets, processors and supply companies hoovering up the profits.
Intensive livestock production underpins an inequitable and unhealthy global food system. Modern intensive agriculture is a fossil fuel-based, energy-intensive industry that is aligned with biotech, trade and energy interests, versus farmer and consumers priorities. It is operated by a highly integrated, consolidated supply chain with a few multinational companies generating profits outside the region.
Chicken production companies subcontract commercial growing to farmers, who invest in constructing sheds. Commercial growers typically receive all inputs (including one day old chicks as well as composite feed) from the poultry company. Shed conditions are controlled electronically and require minimum input from the farmer. One worker can manage 100,000 birds, inspecting the sheds daily to remove dead birds and cull unhealthy ones. Once the birds have reached the target weight, removal and transport to the processing plant is carried out by the multinational poultry company.
As such, these operations don’t positively contribute to local economic development. In fact, they cause harm to economic prospects:
- The expansion of pig farming in Lancashire meant they were forced to cancel plans to build homes close by thanks to pollution.
- A number of studies in the USA have found that the presence of industrialised animal agriculture leads to the reduced enjoyment of property and deterioration of the surrounding landscape, which are reflected in declining home values.
Intensive livestock production does not contribute favourably to a sustainable food supply – i.e., food security. Feeding edible grain to animals is an incredibly inefficient use of food and farmland.
On the other hand, sustainable farming will:
- Minimise GHG emissions and produce healthy food
- Be resilient to climate change (for example agroecology)
- Create good, meaningful jobs
- Put nature first and prioritise using natural resources and by-products from the food supply chain to feed livestock, freeing up land to grow food for people
- Maintain biodiversity, crop diversity, and ensure the careful stewardship of resources (e.g., water, soil)
- Address food insecurity and nutrient deficiencies
- Prioritise local production and consumption
- Encourage smallholder farmers, farming organisations, and rural communities to play an active role in local food systems
These models for farm diversification, with nature-friendly farming at their heart have been shown to create more and better jobs. Here are some examples:
- 600 hectare organic farm in Essex – 12 full time staff on the farm and its three farm shops, 34 part time and seasonal staff
- Acorn Dairy, County Durham (280 hectares) - 25 staff on the farm, processing and marketing, On-farm processing and local sales
- Coleshill Farm, Oxfordshire – 12 Hectares – 18 staff – diverse fruit and veg crops.
Alternatively, rewilding has been proven to increase employment: Over a period of 10 years rewilding led to a 54% increase in jobs and a thirteenfold increase in volunteering positions.
Industrial livestock companies & environmental compliance
In planning applications, industrial livestock development companies claim that, because they are regulated by a permitting system, they are operating within legal and safe levels. But there is cause for concern about compliance:
- Cargill, one of the largest industrial food companies in the world and part-owners of Avara foods, have been sued for polluting waterways in the USA multiple times, and are accused of doing the same in the river Wye.
- Nearly 9 in 10 farms in Devon failed a recent investigation into compliance with pollution regulations by the Environment Agency
- The 'Sustainable Intensification' of industrial livestock companies is intended to promote smart agriculture as more efficient, on the basis of reducing the space/time required to produce outputs for the food system. However, the negative impact is twofold. It undercuts/undermines any farmers that don't subscribe to the intensive model and creates significant levels of pollution in the rural environment
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