Majority Of The UK’s Dairy Farms Found Breaking Pollution Rules

River pollution is a growing problem in the UK


3 Minutes Read

Photo shows a herd of cows with one standing front and center and looking at the camera A new report highlights the extent to watch the UK dairy industry pollutes the environment - Media Credit: Adobe Stock

According to a new report by the charity River Action, most UK dairy farms are in breach of pollution regulations.

Read more: M&S Invests £1m To Tackle Methane From Dairy

The Environment Agency inspected thousands of dairy farms throughout the UK between 2020 and 2021. It found that the vast majority were in breach of environmental regulations around pollution and agricultural runoff and that they spilled what the Guardian reported as “vast” quantities of manure into the nation’s rivers and waterways.

River Action’s report, based on freedom of Information (FOI) requests to the Environment Agency, found that 69 percent of dairy farms inspected in England and 80 percent of those inspected in Wales between 2020 and 2021 were non-compliant with anti-pollution laws.

Furthermore, 60 percent of dairy farms inspected by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency between 2022 and 2023 were also non-compliant, as were 50 percent of those inspected by Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs between 2020 and 2022, highlighting the ubiquitous nature of the problem.

Meanwhile, a previous report from the Environment Agency found that agricultural runoff is the single biggest polluter of rivers in the UK and is responsible for around 40 percent of damage to the country’s struggling waterways.

Read more: Major Pork Producer Admits To Breaking Marketing Law With ‘Climate Controlled’ Label

Dairy farms cause ‘unacceptable pollution’

Photo shows two scientists in protecting suits standing in a river and taking water samples
Adobe Stock The UK’s rivers are already under pressure from water companies illegally dumping sewage

According to River Action, a herd of 50 cows emits the equivalent amount of pollution as a human settlement of 10,000 people. Demand for cheap meat and dairy is increasing, and animal farming is intensifying to match. Today, there are approximately 1.85 million cows in the UK, with the average dairy farm raising 320 cows at any one time.

“The unacceptable pollution levels caused by the UK dairy industry is not dissimilar to the current UK sewage pollution crisis: aged infrastructure designed for much lower volumes of effluent, being overwhelmed by the combination of intensification of use and more volatile weather conditions,” said River Action’s Chairman and Founder Charles Watson.

As noted by Watson, water companies discharged record quantities of sewage into British waterways last year, with the Environment Agency reporting an increase of 54 percent compared to 2022. Furthermore, a BBC investigation found that many of these spills were carried out illegally. Between this and skyrocketing pollution from animal agriculture, the UK’s waterways are becoming notoriously unhealthy.

“Yet another chapter in the British river pollution scandal unfolds,” said Watson. “Our impotent regulators continue to watch on in a solely “advisory” capacity, and the giant supermarket groups happily count their profits at the cost of the continuous degradation of the environment.”

In the wake of its new report, River Action suggests that the government’s post-Brexit grants and subsidies should provide additional incentivization for farms based on environmental performance, as promised. River Action also highlights a need for improved environmental certification from supermarkets along with better enforcement of rules from advisory bodies and regulators.

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