Pollution can result from a variety of different farming practices.
What’s going on?
Pollution arising from a variety of agricultural practices can drive biodiversity loss.
While use of agrochemicals is often necessary to treat crops for pests, fungus or disease or add nutrients to increase yields, it can cause problems when not done responsibly. Runoff of pesticide-derived nitrates and organophosphates, for example, can be significant, adversely affecting soils, water systems and human health.[i]
Leakage of pesticides from the farmed environment into water systems and drinking water heavily impacts invertebrate systems, depletes aquatic systems, harms fresh water supplies, and can enter the food we and other species eat. Often, such problems are compounded by degraded soil health caused by intensified farming practices such as overgrazing, ploughing and repeat cropping. This exacerbates crops’ susceptibility to pests and diseases. And a vicious circle then occurs when even more chemicals are needed.
Animal waste can also generate pollution that causes lasting damage to biodiversity. When poorly managed, such waste can far outstrip what nature can process in the same location. Worse, the problem can be exacerbated by poor slurry storage practices. When slurry ends up in water sources, for example, it causes havoc on the ecosystems.
Air pollutants emitted by agricultural activities including nitrogen-containing compounds (NO2, NO, NH3, N2O) are another issue. Meanwhile, methane and non-methane volatile organic compounds (VOC) are also emitted by agriculture, and livestock are responsible for around half of methane in the UK – 51% in 2016.[ii]
The pesticides/fungicides hexachlorobenzene, hexachlorocyclohexane and pentachlorophenol, which are listed in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, are also emitted from agricultural and forestry use.[iii]
Unmanaged animal waste can also cause lasting damage to biodiversity.
As modern farming practices have enabled larger numbers of livestock farming, so too has the resulting animal waste grown. This waste creates a sink of nutrients, which far outstrips what nature can process in the same location. Poor slurry storage practices exacerbate this, and slurry ends up in water sources causing havoc on the ecosystems.
Closely associated with animal waste is air pollution.
Air pollutants emitted by agricultural activities include nitrogen-containing compounds (NO2, NO, NH3, N2O). In the case of ammonia (NH3) and nitrous oxide (N2O), agricultural sources are the main contributors, comprising 88% and 68% respectively of annual UK emissions in 2016.[ii]
In addition, agricultural soils are becoming a significant source of nitric oxide (NO) – projected to be 6% of UK NOx emissions by 2030 – as emissions from combustion sources are reduced by control measures. Methane and non-methane volatile organic compounds (VOC) are emitted by agriculture, and livestock are an important source of methane in the UK budget (51% in 2016).
The pesticides/fungicides hexachlorobenzene, hexachlorcyclohexane and pentachlorophenol, which are listed in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants[iii], are also emitted from agricultural and forestry use.
A global map of agricultural land across 168 countries has revealed that 64 percent of land used for agriculture and food crops is at risk of pesticide pollution.
Agricultural sources are the main contributors of ammonia (NH3) and nitrous oxide (N2O), which comprised 88% and 68% respectively of annual UK emissions in 2016.
Livestock are responsible for around half of methane in the UK – 51% in 2016.
Failure to account for the environmental cost of food production has led to habitat destruction and pollution, driving wildlife loss.
Get nature positive
UK farmers are already working hard to reduce the potential negative impacts of agriculture-related pollution on nature and biodiversity.
Awareness of the need to reduce the risks and negative impacts associated with pesticide use is high. Many farmers have already been doing great work to address this by reducing use, or by moving towards nature-based solutions.
From integrated pest management systems to better chemical and nutrient management, bespoke planting, and approaches such as circular farming, nature positive approaches are generating many wins. When farmers commit to supporting nature and biodiversity, they can make a monumental impact. They are also first in line to reap the benefits.
Inspired by steps that some farmers and other land managers are already taking, we’ve compiled suggested actions to help you on your nature positive journey.
[vii] Lord Gardiner of Kimble https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2018-05-03/HL7555