As per a government report, the UK’s 60% of the land area is now severely affected by ammonia and nitrogen pollution, generated mostly from farms. As a result, the most sensitive habitats for plants and wildlife are facing adverse effects, but still, there are no definite plans to oversee and lower its impact.
Lichens, mosses, liverworts, and similar other plants are keystone species and are vital to ecosystems. However, ammonia concentrations received by 85% and more of the total land area of England are above the critical level set to protect them. The affected areas in Northern Ireland is even worse, with 88% damage, while the same in Wales is marginally over half of the land and less than a fifth of Scotland.
According to a study from Defra – the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, particularly sensitive sites when considered including specially protected areas, special areas of conservation, and selected scientific interest sites, 95% of sites were overloaded with the pollutants in England. In Wales, 89% and Northern Ireland, 85% of sensitive sites were affected by excess levels of nitrogen. Only Scotland had comparatively lower levels than others where nitrogen was above the “critical load” at only 40% of sites in 2014-16.
The ammonia pollution can have a destructive effect on plants and animal life while flowing into waterways and being deposited into the air. Lichen, for example, on which wildlife depends for food may be killed off by excess ammonia gas, leading to knock-on effects on them. As per the studies, grasslands are losing species that affect pollinating insects and killing off fungi that help trees and other plants to grow.
Simon Bareham, principal adviser on air quality and biodiversity at the Welsh environment agency, Natural Resources Wales, said: “If we don’t do something we risk losing some of these internationally important [ecological] communities that we have hung on to since the last ice age. In the short term, this poses one of the biggest threats to biodiversity that I’ve come across in my career of over 30 years.”
There are sites in Wales, he pointed, where lichens that are sensitive to nitrogen are dying off. As the lichens provide habitats for invertebrates that in turn are eaten by birds, it has terrible knock-on effects on animal life. The half of the rainfall in forest ecosystems are also absorbed by them preventing flooding and storing water for release during dry periods.
Urgent government action is solicited by experts and activists to stem the rise of ammonia emissions, which is nearly 90% and generating from farms. Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and when it combines with other pollutants in the air, forms fine particulates posing a grave danger to human health. According to the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s joint investigation, at least 3,000 deaths a year could be prevented by cutting down agricultural emissions of ammonia to half.
Ammonia is also a pungent gas that is associated with animal manure and nitrogen fertilizers. Ammonia concentrations in large quantity can cause throat stinging, eye damage, and even death to humans. When we use fertilizers on land, the nitrogen it contains can also wash off into nearby waterways causing the overgrowth of some plants while the death of others and thus disturbing natural ecosystems.
Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green Party MP, said: “We usually associate air pollution with cities, so it’s shocking to see how much rural areas are affected by ammonia pollution. It’s clearly vital that the government closes the loophole which means that beef and dairy farms are not monitored. This should be a priority in the environment bill.”
However, she urged people to look beyond the immediate effects of the pollutant and bring about broader changes in the food and farming systems of the UK. “Pressure on farmers is forcing many to adopt more intensive agricultural practices for livestock and crop production, and this will only get worse post-Brexit. We need to move to more sustainable practices. This means less but better meat and dairy production, which would not only improve air quality but also benefit the environment, lead to better public health and improve animal protection.”
Civil society groups demanded the sweeping reforms in the monitoring and regulation of the farms. “The UK must address what’s coming out of our farms as well as our exhaust pipes,” said Kate Nield, clean air lawyer at Client Earth, which has successfully taken ministers to court over air pollution. “Unless urgent action is taken, the government is on track to miss legally binding commitments to reduce ammonia by 2020 and 2030. Relying on voluntary measures will not be enough. If binding rules to limit polluting farm practice aren’t put in place as soon as possible and farmers aren’t made to comply, we will have a major blind spot.”
Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, called ammonia “a huge public health and environmental issue that needs to be tackled urgently,” and the intensification of agriculture in the UK is one of the chief causes, he pointed. “Action needs to go way beyond simply covering slurry pits and other quick-fix methods to a major root cause: the proliferation of mega farms in the UK,” he said.
“Large-scale factory farms with huge numbers of confined animals mean vast quantities of manure and a surge in air pollution. [The government] needs to get serious about charting a course away from deeply damaging industrial livestock farming.”
The previous investigations by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have shown that in recent years, the number of intensive pig and poultry farms has increased by more than a quarter. Recently there are about 800 US-style “mega farms” across the country, mainly poultry and pig farms, joined by around a dozen cattle “feedlots” for production of beef in the east of England.
Residents residing near farms are not happy about the effects of shifting into intensive production. “It used to be like, it’s a beautiful day, and you take a deep breath of fresh air and smell the different herbs, grasses, what’s flowering,” said Sarah Macdiarmid, who lives in North Devon, one of the UK’s leading dairy regions. “Not anymore. Most days, when you go out, you’ve got a brief window and if the weather is fine, they’re spraying [slurry]. And it stinks, it’s absolutely dire.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Our clean air strategy sets out for the first time how we plan to tackle farm ammonia pollution by requiring and supporting farmers to invest in the infrastructure and equipment required to reduce emissions. We have already published guidance on how farmers can take action and will consult later this year on policy to reduce emissions from urea fertilizers, the first in a series of rules to reduce ammonia emissions from farming.”