Our farmers are a vital part of our economy, providing jobs for people in rural communities and food for our tables. Farmers also play a critical role in protecting our environment and helping to tackle climate change by locking carbon into soils.
We're seeking your views on the challenges our waters face, including the issue of agricultural pollution, and the choices we all need to make to help tackle those challenges. Your responses will help shape the management of the water environment.
Challenges - The impacts of agriculture on the environment
We know that many farmers work really hard to protect and improve the environment. This is vital as 70% of land in England is used for agriculture and the role that farmers play makes a real difference.
Unfortunately farming is still one of the biggest sources of pollution incidents and a major reason why 40% of our rivers and groundwaters still need improving. In 2018, farming activities caused 77 serious incidences of pollution in our waterways. This damages water, land, soil and ecosystems.
The most serious pollution incidents result from slurry and silage effluent. In a recent detailed investigation of one catchment we found that 95% of dairy farms failed to meet water protection standards and half of those were actually causing pollution into the river at the time of our visit. Most weeks we are called to deal with at least one serious pollution incident arising from farms. This pollution damages the local ecology and can make rivers unfishable by anglers.
In addition to serious pollution incidents, diffuse pollution represents a continuing threat to our water environment. Diffuse pollution occurs when rainfall washes slurry or farmyard manure, soil, chemicals, micro plastics, pesticides or fertiliser into ditches, local streams, rivers, lakes and ultimately the sea.
Poor agricultural practice can result in compacted soils that stops water from soaking into the land and creates run-off. This can cause top soil, which contains both nutrients and pesticides, to be washed into streams and rivers. The loss of top soil can also increase flood risk downstream. Soil degradation from farming was calculated in 2010 to cost £1.2 billion every year. Reversing it by 2030 is an aim of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.
Pumping water out of rivers and watercourses for agricultural use can add pressure to catchments that are already low on water especially during hot and dry weather. The Environment Agency is working closely with farmers to minimise the impacts of agricultural activities on streams and rivers in these areas.
The impact of agricultural pressures include loss of biodiversity, risks to human health, higher water treatment costs for the public, and economic damage to fisheries, tourism and recreational businesses.
Choices - What we do together can help to shape and change this
With the right approach, funding and motivation this can change. We need modern, well-funded regulation of agriculture supported by advice and incentives. We also need to see farmers who are properly funded to protect and improve the environment and the wider food industry to take its responsibilities seriously too.
Farming and rural land use is ever changing. The farming industry will continue to need to adapt to changes in market conditions, evolving government policy and of course climate change.
The Agriculture Bill, will replace the restrictive rules of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), freeing farmers to seize the opportunities offered by Brexit. It will introduce ambitious new land management schemes, based on the principle of “public money for public goods”, which will allow Defra to reward farmers and land managers who protect our environment, improve animal welfare and produce high quality food in a more sustainable way.
Within this period of change, there will also be new opportunities to improve farming related regulation that supports better environment protection and a thriving farm industry.
Innovative solutions will be needed to support the food and farming sector and help ensure that every farmer is able to make the right choices to protect and improve the environment. We already know that farmers are up to the challenge of making farming more sustainable and I am confident that by focusing on this issue now we can build on the great practice that is already out there.
Achieving these goals is also about building sustainability into the whole supply chain of our food system from farm to fork. We see Defra’s development of the National Food Strategy shaping this once-in-a-generation opportunity to cultivate a stronger food system for the future, ensuring that everyone has access to high-quality British food and our environment is protected for future generations.
We're seeking your views on the challenges our waters face, including the issue of agricultural pollution, and the choices we all need to make to help tackle those challenges. Your responses will help shape the management of the water environment. Please take the time to let us know what you think: