Pollution can result from a variety of different farming practices.
What’s going on?
Pollution is entering the natural world as a by-product of many farming practices, including actions that make it easier for pollutants to enter the natural environment.
Use of agrochemicals from treating crops for pests, fungus or disease – or the addition of nutrients to increase yields – is common across all kinds of farming and the risks are exacerbated by the cumulative effects of legacy pesticide use. 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.
High levels of pesticide-derived nitrates and organophosphates runoff affecting soil and water systems is arguably the biggest pollution-based issue resulting from high artificial input farming practices. With waste levels of around 60% from all pesticide applications, the runoff enters the surrounding environment. Excess nitrates and organophosphates are not just affecting soils but can also be toxic to humans.[i]
These issues are compounded by declining soil health, as a result of industrialised farming practices. Through overgrazing, ploughing and repeat cropping, the soil composition in agricultural lands has been undermined. And the resulting soil movement intensifies the spread of chemicals – such as synthetic pesticides and fertilisers – which washes into surrounding ecosystems as topsoil moves with air and water flow. Poor soil health also exacerbates the crops’ susceptibility to pests and diseases, and therefore even more chemicals are required – a viscious cycle
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.
- Use of pesticides has grown exponentially since their 1945 introduction into the open market, with new pesticides and compositions being added to the market yearly.[iv]
- High nitrate and organophosphate use in pesticides is perhaps the biggest pollution issue in the industry – level of waste around 60% of all applied nitrates and phosphates.[v]
- Air pollution is a key issue for woodland health. Only 7% of Britain’s native woods are in good ecological condition. Meanwhile, many of irreplaceable ancient woodlands – which now cover only 2.5% of UK land area – have been lost.[vi]
- Agriculture accounted for 88% UK ammonia emissions in 2016 – most of which came from livestock farming, notably cattle and expanding pig and poultry.[vii]
Get nature positive
Agriculture is a unique industry in terms of its relationship with biodiversity.
It has a deep rooted and intertwined relationship with nature, as it derives its success from its bounty. As such the agricultural industry, when committed to supporting nature, can make a monumental impact. And due to the close working relationship between nature and industry within agriculture, this sector can be the first to see the positive impacts of their changes on biodiversity.
From accurate assessment of the need for resorting to synthetic pesticides, bespoke planting and integrated pest management systems, better chemical and nutrient management, there are wins across the board. And with game changing approaches to circular farming and innovative uses for byproducts, the industry could lead the way with biodiversity friendly approaches as gate keepers for nature.
Inspired by steps that some agricultural companies and small-holder farmers are already taking, we’ve compiled suggested actions to help you on your journey to getting nature positive.
[vii] Lord Gardiner of Kimble https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2018-05-03/HL7555