4 thought-provoking moments on farming and water pollution from Monbiot-fronted Rivercide

Processed Water, Waste & Resources

If you didn't get the chance to watch it live-streamed last night Rivercide, the world's-first live documentary looking at who is polluting Britain's rivers and why nobody is stopping them, it's definitely worth carving out an hour to do so. Play it back here.

Fronted by seasoned environmental and political journalist George Monbiot and streaming live from the River Wye, a real-world example of 'Rivercide' in action with soaring river phosphate levels impacting aquatic plants and wildlife, a clear theme ran throughout: farming continues to one of biggest sources of pollution incidents, but it isn't hitting the headlines in the same way as illegal dishcharges from water and sewage treatment companies.

Below we look at four thought-provoking moments on farming and water pollution from the documentary, that may shed light on why this is the case.

1. Citizens scientists are stepping up to fill the gap left by regulators

In the documentary Monbiot cited figures which outlined that Natural Resource Wales has had its budget slashed by a third while the EA has seen budgets slashed by two-thirds. After dubbling regulators 'missing in action' when it came to the River Wye, he also went on to praise the role of citizen scientists in monitoring water quality levels and highlighting issues of environmental concern, particularly in relation to farm run off and water pollution.

2. The impact of chicken manure on waterways pollution can't be underestimated

When the number of chicken factories/farms in the River Wye catchment was plotted up on an eye-catching visual – according to a local citizen interviewed, it contains five times the phosphate of sheep and cattle manure and invariably ends up in rivers even if its suitably disposed by spreading out on a piece of land – Monbiot was quick to declare 'why aren’t people screaming about this?’. Why indeed.

One potential reason, which emerged during Monbiot's grilling of Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd Lesley Griffiths, is that 'no one knows how many chickens there are in the catchment to the nearest million' (Monbiot) and thus it's hard to keep our eyes on the ball in relation to this issue. Griffiths replied that someone in the Welsh government is likely to have those figures somewhere. Granted these stats are niche, and not likely to be readily to hand, but whether they exist at all is the real question.

It was also revealed that Natural Resource Wales has had planning permission and environmental assessment guidance for Poultry Units in place since 2017 which include sections on pollution prevention. Monbiot questioned why poulty units in the area have continued to pollute and proliferate despite this.

When pressed, Griffiths did concede that if closing some poulty units forms part of the solution for river pollution then that's something the Welsh government would look into.

3. Could farming's 'storybook' image come at a big environmental cost?

In the documentary Monbiot pondered whether farming's 'storybook' image is one of the reasons it has escaped public scrutiny? We all have fond memories of singing Old Macdonald Had a Farm at nursery, but it's disconcerting to think this rosy image of farm life has continued to put the blinders on our view of farming ever since.

It's also interesting/alarming to note that using ratios from EA data from 2018 and 2019 on farm inspections, the Salmon & Trout Conservation estimated that farms, on average, can expect an inspection every 263 years.

4. We need to get political and proactive in order to tackle pollution

Monbiot ends by making a call to arms for 'people power' to play its part in tackling Rivercide. He urges the climate concerned to sign up to campaigns led by River Action a UK based environmental group – who also shine a spotlight on the role of poulty farms in river pollution and in Monbiot's words want to 'get the government to do what's said on the tin' and take regulatory action.

Why not continue the conversation by joining our rivers and coastal group or our waste network?

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