Chloe Ryan spoke to John Reed, agriculture director at Avara Foods, about a new plan developed by the company to improve water quality in the River Wye. Avara sources poultry from 120 farms in the river’s catchment, and in recent years concerns have been mounting about phosphates ending up in the river.
The interview was recorded for the Poultry Today podcast, which you can find on all podcast platforms. Here is a summary of some of the highlights of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.
CHLOE RYAN: The specific concern is around phosphates that are brought on to farms in the form of poultry feed, which eventually find their way into the water. The phosphates can cause algal blooms, which grow quickly in hot weather and lower river levels, reducing the oxygen content, killing aquatic life and impacting on the water quality. The problems with water quality in the River Wye have received national attention in the past few years, so John, can you start by telling us why you’ve published this action plan looking at phosphate management now?
JOHN REED: There has been a lot of increased media activity on river quality and in particular the Wye. I should start by saying most rivers in England fail their phosphate levels, so this is not a just a Wye issue, but the River Wye is a special river so it gets more attention. We have got a water quality issue in the catchment, and we have also got a planning moratorium in the area, which is causing economic consequences. So, everyone is under pressure to try and do something.
CR: What role have campaigners played in drawing attention to the river?
JR: We have had a number of uninformed NGOs and special interest groups who have been trying to link an increase in poultry production with the deterioration of the river and that has been somewhat unfair. What we have been trying to do is over the last couple of years is try to understand what are the issues and what can we do about it.
CR: Why is the Wye a special river?
JR: The River Wye is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and it is an area of conservation. It is an iconic river. We called out two years ago that this is a complex issue: not the single issue that was being suggested by some pressure groups. This river runs through two countries, four county councils, has two sets of legislation and two sets of enforcement. So, it is complicated from a regulatory aspect. We have very little data. We don’t actually know how many poultry are in the Wye catchment. We do know it has increased in recent years, as it has in the rest of the country.
CR: So, how have you put together a plan, given the lack of data?
JR: Well, there hadn’t been any information until about 18 months ago, when Lancaster University produced what it called the RePhoKUS project and it used the best available information at the time to assess the catchment area. One conclusion was there was a high level of legacy phosphates in the soils in this area, that there was diffuse pollution happening from movements of phosphates through the soil, and there was an element of run off as well. They tried to quantify the amounts and apportion responsibility as well. Agriculture is responsible in their numbers for about 70% of the phosphates in the river. Sewage is the other 30%.
CR: What did you do then?
JR: At that point, having got some information we felt, as a responsible business, we ought to be getting involved in this. So, we went public and said we have seen this report and it suggests agriculture is the main problem. We are a large agriculture business in the area and we knew we could be part of the problem. How much of the problem we didn’t know, but what we set out to do was understand the data and the numbers and that is why we have produced the roadmap that we have done.
CR: To what extent did pressure from NGOs contribute to your involvement?
JR: You can never ignore NGOs and pressure groups because they create reputational damage even though it is rather uninformed, and it is based on views rather than facts. But in a wider context our business has been considering the impact on the environment. There are a number of things we’ve considered, whether that be carbon footprint, plastics, and now emissions – whether that is to air, land or water. So, the combination of having that on our radar, pressure from media and NGOs and being armed with some science allowed us to get on and do something.
CR: So, how would you summarise the plan to reduce phosphates?
JR: We and our farmer base will take accountability for the phosphates in the supply chain. We will know what phosphorus we use as an input through feed, what is retained in the product and deported and what ends up going through the bird and into manure, and then what happens to the manure. And we will do that to try and mitigate any excess levels of phosphate in our supply chain.
CR: What happens currently to the muck from the 120 poultry farms in the catchment?
JR: Lots of it is used as a fertilisers on arable and grassland farms. And a number of farmers put up poultry farms because they saw the output – manure – as a useful addition to their farming activity as well as producing poultry. So that still goes on. We have a number of farms who put their poultry manure in anaerobic digestors. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it helps with their renewable energy, but you still get a digestate. You have a few farms that burn their muck to produce energy and that produces ash and as long as the ash is exported out of the catchment that causes no problem. What we wanted to look at is reducing the amount of manure that goes direct to land.
CR: How do you do that? Presumably on your company-owned farms you have total control, but contracted farms can choose what they do?
JR: The vast majority of the farms are contracted farms. It is not just Avara taking this reputational damage, it is the farms, so they need to be part of the solution. We have had a number of meetings with our farming partners. It is not going away. We need to be cognisant of environmental concerns and we need to be part of the solution. I am a big fan of using anaerobic digestors. You take poultry manure, which is an asset and you get energy that can be heat, power, biogas. You potentially take CO2 off it, and you refine the digestate into a more precise digestate product that has less volume and is easier to ship out. And if you do that, you create a more circular economy within the local economy.
CR: Can it all be dealt with in that way?
JR: We can’t escape that we do need to provide nutrients to crops. What we have said to our growers is if you currently farm as well as produce poultry we would be content that you carried on using poultry manure, but you are going to have to have a robust soil nutrient and manure management plan, which is going to need to be third-party verified. And if you are still producing too much, it is going to have to go to one of these third-party processes [such as anaerobic digestion]. So, we are not saying you can’t put anything on the land because if you shipped everything out of the area, farmers would go and buy it from somewhere else. What we are trying to do is make sure, in the catchment areas as a whole, there isn’t more manure than the catchment requires, and if there is it should go somewhere else.
CR: How difficult, expensive and time consuming is this going to be?
JR: Well, it takes up nearly all of my time, so I would like to see if sorted sooner rather than later! We have put a two-year timeline to get this dealt with from an Avara point of view. And if Avara does achieve it – and there is no reason why we wouldn’t – there will be an expectation everyone else will as well. The great thing about poultry is we do operate within structured supply chains. So, it is a lot easier dealing with the 120 farms we have than Herefordshire dealing with the 2,200 other farms that would be a part of this as well. For this to work, all livestock producers are doing to have to work out what they are going to do with their manures.
CR: Who will do the audits?
JR: We would like it to be external, so then you have complete transparency and we would not be accused of marking our own homework. We are looking through assurance schemes to see if we can have that done through those routes. It should be said the Environment Agency (EA) have been pretty woeful in their enforcement on what is current legislation and clearly it would help if farmers did what they were meant to do and there was a good level of enforcement. But resources are what they are and we think a combination of EA and assurance ought to do it. Red Tractor are looking at this in environmental schemes, so that would probably be our first port of call.
CR: Why do you say the EA has been woeful?
JR: EA is the English side and National Rivers Wales is the other side of the border. They are the enforcement agencies for the environment and they are totally underfunded. So, I am not criticising individuals in those departments. Last year they took great delight in telling us they were going to do 150 farm visits in Herefordshire, which was an increase because they had done 115 in the whole of the West Midlands. And as I said there are 2,200 farms in Herefordshire alone. So, your chances of getting an inspection are pretty remote.
CR: What is the biggest challenge?
JR: It has been just getting the right people together. We have had some very good conversations of late, bringing in the EA with scientists and other interested groups who can provide some of the answers and we have been working with arable farmers and I think we are gaining traction. In the last meeting last week, poultry wasn’t mentioned once. We must be getting somewhere! And it is about how to we bring it all together so that those responsible for looking after the land are doing it in a responsible way. We know there is more environment legislation on the way, there are incentives through the Environmental Land Management scheme, councils are getting more involved in this because they can’t build things, so there is really now a growing tide. The final conclusion is if we can’t do this in a voluntary way, we will get it mandated.
CR: What about reformulating feed to have less phosphorus?
JR: We, as a business, have reduced the amount of phosphorus by 27% in our diets over the last six years, so that is quite a significant number. We have been able to do that through enzymes. Why feed an animal something it doesn’t need that is a cost and a waste? So, that precision feeding we have done over the last few years will continue. We have done that without compromising animal health, welfare or productivity. We are trying to balance a lot of things. And they conflict with each other sometimes, so when we think about environment, animal health and welfare and productivity, they don’t sit comfortably sometimes.
We need to recognise, as an industry, we have made improvements on a number of things over the years and chicken and genetics have all played a role in that.
CR: If this issue is managed successfully, will the planning moratorium be lifted and do you want that?
JR: The planning moratorium is on anything, so you can’t build a house in north Herefordshire, for example. As an industry we have got to start being more cognisant of the businesses we have. I think poultry does a tremendous job. We have produced good quality food that is affordable and available to all. We create businesses and employment. Those are all positive things. But I think increasingly the attention in the wider community are the impacts on environment, welfare, food safety. And we need to do the best we possibly can.
So, it is not let’s grow at any cost, because there is an impact. We all have an impact as individuals and businesses and we are going to have to be more mindful. This moratorium in Herefordshire, there are 13 in England now, and the numbers are growing. So, this is not just a Wye catchment area or an Avara issue. Councils are going to be more resistant to planning. The other thing we need to be mindful of, and this is a comment to the industry, is we are in the worst AI outbreak we have had. Putting more poultry down and creating ever more concentrated areas of poultry production is not helpful.
A personal view is we are getting to the point where we have as many poultry farms as we can deal with before tipping over that balance on always being on the back foot from an environmental and disease point of view.
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