1.1 billion chickens: profit, poo and the pollution of our rivers

The inconvenient truth about the nation’s favourite meat

‘Stop killing our rivers.’ This was the bold and brutal title of a report published by the Soil Association in March. The focus was industrial chicken production – a “runaway train”, according to the organic charity’s head of policy Rob Percival. “If we don’t act now to put the brakes on industrial production, we’ll see more of our rivers becoming dead zones and facing the same desperate fate as the River Wye,” he explains.

The River Wye, the fourth longest river in the UK forming part of the border between Wales and England, is currently making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Once upon a time it provided bucolic inspiration for William Wordsworth. Today it is renowned for algal blooms that blight the waterway, damaging its precious biodiversity. Natural England has downgraded its status to “unfavourable-declining”. Swim in it and there’s a good chance you’ll get sick.

This sad story has been years in the making. In 2020, a thick algal bloom extended nearly 140 miles, turning the river green and sucking the life out of what once thrived beneath. Contrary to what you may have read in recent newspaper articles, cheap chicken is not the only culprit in the decline of the Wye. There is however little doubt it’s played a significant role.

The watercourse has been “assaulted by a deluge of pollution from intensive agriculture, causing prolonged algal blooms… Endangered species like the Atlantic Salmon are on the cusp of localised extinction,” says Charles Watson, chair and founder of River Action UK, a campaigning group that in February launched a landmark judicial review against the Environment Agency claiming it has failed to stop farmers releasing vast tonnages of fertiliser (chicken poo) onto the land, which then leaches into the surrounding watercourses. 

Just before Easter the group also supported a multi-million pound claim, brought by law firm Leigh Day, alleging that Avara’s industrial scale chicken farming in the River Wye catchment area is polluting the river and surrounding land. “Evidence shows the operations of Avara Foods to supply UK supermarkets has been the overwhelming cause of phosphorous pollution which is damaging the River Wye,” said the lawyers.

The problem with phosphorous

Many farmers apply phosphorous to their land as an essential element for plant growth. Without it, yields would be lower and too little phosphorous can restrict growth of roots and shoots. Too much of it can cause serious environmental problems – and the land around the Wye has had a serious overdose. Some 24 million birds are reportedly reared in the Wye Valley (which is 25% of the country’s total production) and that creates a staggering amount of waste.

Large chicken farms require environmental permits to operate. Cathy Cliff, who wrote the Soil Association report, looked at permits issued by the Environment Agency for 160 new or expanding intensive poultry operations in England and Wales since 2014. “In the vast majority of cases, the permits stated that litter (including manure and other waste that collects on the floor in the units while the chickens are in there) is spread on land, including that owned by the operator and third party owned land,” she explains.

Her research traces the issue across the world, from the phosphorous sourced in Morocco, to Brazil where it is applied to soils beneath the soya crops that will produce the feed for all these housed birds. In the chickens it is converted to phosphate and excreted in manure, and then it is spread to land. “If the law to prevent nutrient oversaturation had been properly enforced, then we argue that the horrendous pollution of the Wye catchment could have largely been prevented,” says River Action’s Watson.

It’s not only the Wye that’s at risk. Across those 160 permits that Cliff unearthed, space was approved for another 23.7m birds at any one point in time. With seven chicken crops a year that works out at almost 166 million extra chickens being farmed for meat now compared to a decade ago, she notes. 

Campaigners say the figures are mind-boggling; the impacts heart-wrenching; and the responses of the poultry sector infuriating. Ruth Westcott, a campaigner with Sustain, has been tracking this issue for years. “We are at ‘peak poultry’,” she explains. “We think it’s the large agribusinesses that are to blame. They need strict regulation, in the same way government is proposing to regulate sewage companies.”

The water companies have certainly – and very publicly – been brought to task of late. And the Environment Agency (EA) is now after farmers. Alan Lovell, the regulator’s chairman, pulled no punches at this year’s NFU conference in February. He presented a slide showing water companies – which have been slammed for their sewage discharges – were responsible for 36 per cent of pollution incidents, but farming at 40 per cent.

The EA has super-charged its inspections of farms generally, which is causing additional stress at a “delicate time” for producers, explains the NFU’s Richard Wordsworth. Farmers are dealing with everything from the post-Brexit subsidy regime and rising input costs to supermarket demands and a changing climate. Levels of despair are high. “They [the government and Defra] are doing things which perhaps [they] should have been doing 10, 20, 30 years ago, but didn’t,” Wordsworth told me recently. “The regulator hasn’t regulated in this way before.” He mentions a friend who has recently had a letter from the EA and “you can tell it is weighing on his mind”. 

Paltry prices

Some of the chicken farmers in the Wye Valley will have been pushed out of beef or sheep production and sold a less stressful business concept, selling a product the market demands. UK production of chicken far outstrips that of other meats these days – it was the only meat in volume growth in 2023, according to NIQ data and was the food and drink star of The Grocer’s Top Products 2023.

Not only is it cheap and healthy, we are told, but it’s low carbon too. “90 per cent of British poultry is reared indoors because it is a more productive system with less of an impact,” says British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths. “It also means manure is not spread on the land. In cases where manure is a contributing factor to pollution then farmers, in conjunction with experts and authorities, must look at application on the land. For the Wye specifically the company has taken its litter out of the equation,” he adds.

Avara Foods – a subsidiary of US commodity behemoth Cargill and the company in question – supplies a host of leading supermarkets and restaurants, including Tesco and Nandos (with barn-reared birds). Avara is reportedly responsible for 16m of the 24m birds reared in the area. “They use farmers as contractors to produce chickens, and pay themselves handsomely while dumping the waste on these farmer contractors and other farmers to deal with,” says Westcott. “Their growth plans are simply incompatible with the climate emergency or with the need to clean up our rivers.”

Ask around for information on how the big poultry businesses are monitoring their manure, reporting on tonnages or reducing any impacts, and there is an eerie silence. Moy Park, 2Sisters and Avara did not respond to requests for information. Neither did RSPCA Assured, which could soon be exposed by this scandal too (the birds have slightly more space on their certified farms but still produce vast tonnages of waste).

Avara’s sustainability report, published in November, illustrates a 32.7 per cent reduction on phosphorous in the diets of its birds since 2016. Last month, the company reported progress against its ‘Sustainable poultry roadmap’. As of January, 74 per cent of the 142,263 tonnes of poultry manure from Avara farms is being “exported” from the catchment, while 26 per cent is being used in a soil assurance standard trial with Red Tractor. “[…] we anticipate our actions will have very little impact on the health of the river,” Avara wrote.

The firm is keen to point the finger at other farms, too. On the claim brought by Leigh Day, it has told media it “ignores the long-standing use of phosphate-rich fertiliser by arable farms as well as the clear scientific data showing the issue of excess phosphorus considerably pre-dates the growth of poultry farms in the Wye catchment”. 

Pollution and Profit

This is all about balance, explains Kate Still, head of farming programmes at the Soil Association. “There are too many chickens and too many chickens in these catchments,” she explains. Not all the farmers are engaged in malpractice, but the levels of waste they are dealing with means something has to give – and the environment, local people and us, as taxpayers, are paying the price for cheap chicken production. The question is not only who pollutes, but who profits?

This problem clearly stretches further than these poultry farms but perhaps not in the way Avara et al will hope. “Chicken has become a much more ubiquitous part of our diets, driven by advertising, and retailer and restaurant behaviour, as well as the big agribusinesses that are lobbying against policy change,” says Westcott. “We need to interrogate what we mean by ‘market demands’, and who is creating that demand.”

Is it food businesses? Is it consumers? Is it the system? It is all of these. 

Intensive chicken farming is being clearly linked to environmental health, and while the necessary changes are hard to swallow this could be an opportunity – a “huge one”, in fact, according to Adele Jones, executive director at the Sustainable Food Trust. The scale of the intensive farms – which are also growing in number across the dairy and pig sectors – was “always going to catch up with us”, she explains, “and I don’t think the public realise they are paying for this either – through their water bills, NHS costs, and through subsidising farm support payments”.

With her glass half full, Jones feels the narrative is changing among the public, and this is the chance to tell alternative stories. The interest in soil health, agroecology and organic approaches, for example, will only rise on the back of this story about cooped up birds and clogged-up rivers. Consumers generally remain confused about the differences between free-range and organic, for example, so now is the time to talk about greater access to outdoor space, lower stocking rates, slower growing breeds, the additional welfare regulations and need for trees and cover – all of which can help reduce the burden on both the birds and the land.

In these systems, explains Harriet Bell, regenerative farming lead at Riverford, outputs like manure become inputs rather than waste. The scale is also on a completely different level to the farms at the centre of the current shitstorm: extensive rather than intensive; working with nature rather than against it; protecting the soil rather than punishing it.

“If you have a more biologically active soil, it will cycle phosphate very quickly and allow the plant as much phosphate as it needs,” explained agronomist, (regenerative) farmer and consultant Ben Taylor-Davies in an interview with Wicked Leeks last year. He talked about the importance of soil chemistry and how understanding it can help explain not only the issues but also the solutions; and the regular soil and water testing he does to assess the farm’s impact on the neighbouring river.

A 2.5km stretch of the River Wye runs alongside his farm in Herefordshire. “It was a beautiful thing,” he said. “Now you notice the river going green during the summer and dead fish floating to the surface. It’s not in a healthy place.’’ 

The problems run deeper than the Wye and further than just poultry. But will we heed the warning signs?

Want to know more about your Chickens? Read our Wicked Leeks guide, here

Sign the Soil Association’s Stop Killing our Rivers petition, here.

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