The boom in intensive farming of pigs and poultry in Northern Ireland has spawned a million euro industry supplying British consumers with chicken and pork to eat. But it has also become a headache for politicians because of pollution and the environment.
After a decade of growth, the country has a population of 25 million poultry and pork production has risen to almost 1.5 million. Almost all the meat is exported to Great Britain.
Amid a bitter dispute between the European Union and the United Kingdom over the impending ban on the importation of cold meats from Britain to the European region, figures show that Northern Ireland is not short of ingredients to make sausages.
However, the country is struggling to dispose of animal excrement in a sustainable way, and may have to export more than a third of it. Phosphate and nitrate levels are threatening the country’s waterways and leading the UK to exceed international limits for ammonia.
Advisory bodies they have told politicians that the country is likely to have to export 35% of animal excrement in order to improve the quality of water and land in the region, and that “agricultural activities continue to pose a significant and growing threat to water quality” in Northern Ireland.
Only one lake in 21 in Northern Ireland has water in good condition according to the EU water framework directive, a regulation that aims to improve the quality of water in rivers.
The first bill In relation to the climate crisis, the autonomous administration of Northern Ireland passed the second reading last month and establishes the objective that the country reaches emission neutrality by 2045. Agricultural groups say that if that goal were put in place, half of the country’s cattle farms could disappear.
A quarter of Northern Ireland’s poultry ends is exported, but there are no reliable figures to give an idea of the total magnitude of exports of animal waste.
The concentrated liquid and solid manure generated by intensive pig and poultry farming is shipped south of the border, even reaching the town of Wexford, more than 150 miles from Northern Ireland. Some of what remains is shipped to incinerators in Britain, including some in Norfolk and Fife. Material transported to the Republic of Ireland is used primarily as fertilizer or processed by anaerobic digestion plants to obtain biofuel.
Pollution from manure shipped from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland has already prompted legal action. Network Friends of the earth Y An Taisce, the National Fund for Ireland (an NGO dedicated to the environment) are already preparing complaints. An Taisce owns land on the border between Monaghan and Tyrone counties.
The Green Party says 98% of Northern Ireland’s Special Conservation Areas exceed critical nitrogen levels, and some even reach 300% or more.
James Orr, director of the Northern Ireland office of Friends of the Earth, says that cross-border pollution is the result of years of legislative inaction on both sides of the border. According to him, intensive breeding farms have generated: “air pollution, chronic water pollution and also environmental degradation due to the deforestation of natural and semi-natural habitats for intensive farming”.
“Northern Ireland is the center of the agricultural industry, which means that we are saturated with excrement,” says Orr. “And not only we are suffering the consequences, but also our neighbors.”
Increase in intensive farms
Meanwhile, intensive pig and poultry farming continues to grow in the country: the resolution is awaited on the construction of giant units that could house tens of thousands of pigs and chickens in Newtownabbey, Fermanagh and Limavady. If approved, they would become the intensive breeding farms largest in the whole of the UK.
The number of intensive farming farms (with 40,000 birds or more) with planning permission in Northern Ireland rose from 141 in 2011 to 245 in 2017, according to figures provided by the Investigative Journalism Agency after a request made to transparency.
During this period, Moy Park, Northern Ireland’s largest company and Europe’s largest poultry processor, encouraged the construction of hundreds of poultry houses on Northern Ireland farms.
Between 2012 and 2020, the number of poultry in Northern Ireland increased by 27% to almost 25 million. Between 2006 and 2020, slaughter of farm-raised pigs doubled in the region (from 717,172 to 1,444,150), while breeding herds increased by 31% between 2006 and 2019.
On the other hand, between 2011 and 2018, the export sales of pork from Northern Ireland they almost doubled (from about 64 million to more than 124 million euros), while total agricultural food exports increased by 77%.
Almost 80% of the region’s meat is exported, with Britain being the main destination market: in 2015, Northern Ireland exported almost two-thirds of its total agricultural food exports to the rest of the UK.
Mark Sutton, an environmental physicist at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology, says that while the primary sector represents a large part of the economy In Northern Ireland, there is a pressing need to meet emission reduction targets for nitrogen, of which ammonia is a compound. The UK’s main climate challenge ahead of COP26 is carbon emissions.
Citing the damage that excess manure does to moss and peat bogs – which act as carbon sinks and are sensitive to nitrogen – Sutton argues that direct measures such as the use of new machinery for liquid manure spreading and storage more efficient manure fertilizer could help reduce Northern Ireland’s emissions significantly.
“If we want to meet the zero emissions target, we must take action on nitrogen. One of the problems is how fragmented its derivatives are: there is ammonia, nitrates in water and nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas hundreds of times more powerful than carbon dioxide and coming out of the ground, “he says.
Chris McCaffrey, a councilor for the Fermanagh and Omagh districts, says farmers are trying to diversify “by copying the industrial model, which brings enormous ecological and public health risks, as well as risks to animal welfare.”
“Here in Fermanagh, the top layer of soil is very sparse, it is only a couple of centimeters. So it doesn’t take long for ammonia and other pollutants to reach the underground layers,” he says.
Last year, It was rejected an application to install a new farm with a capacity of 1,000 pigs on the border of the Derrylin territory, following enormous opposition from the community.
The Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Rural Affairs (Daera) from Northern Ireland says it has “developed a strategy for ammonia, which will soon be published for evaluation. The strategy outlines a comprehensive approach to reducing ammonia and protecting and restoring natural habitats.”
“Daera has already taken action on ammonia in Northern Ireland, such as funding a large research program on ammonia, publishing codes of good agricultural practice to reduce ammonia emissions and financially supporting farmers who want to invest in ammonia reduction technology, such as low-emission slurry spreading equipment, which reduces ammonia and the impact on water quality. ”
Translated by Lucia Balducci.