21.06.24 Environment

Growth of polluting ‘megafarms’ set to continue under next government

Campaigners raise the alarm at lack of will among major parties to curb intensive farming

The UK faces the prospect of more polluting US-style “megafarms” under a Labour government after the party failed to include any pledges to restrict their growth in its manifesto.

Environmentalists and campaigners have voiced concerns that the main political parties have stayed largely silent on the topic of intensive farming ahead of the UK election on 4 July. Only the Green party has included in its manifesto a clear pledge to ban factory farming.

The lack of strong policies means the UK will likely see the continued development of so-called megafarms, which have increased 20% in number since 2016 under successive Conservative governments. These farms have been associated with river pollution, poor animal welfare and public health concerns.

Many are concentrated in a number of small areas, including Norfolk and the Wye region, leading to calls for a halt on new intensive farms.

The silence on the issue from Labour – which is on course for a large majority according to the latest polls – is in contrast to 2018, when the party made a pre-election pledge to consult on the expansion of megafarms.

The party’s manifesto also makes no mention of the farming budget: support for farmers that the industry says is vital if they are to increase sustainable production.

The Conservative party manifesto vows to increase the farming budget by £1bn over the next parliament, a boost described as “modest” by wildlife charities. However, it makes no mention of restricting megafarms or farm animal welfare.

The Liberal Democrats manifesto does include a number of pledges to maintain animal welfare standards and reduce pollution in farming, but stopped short of calling for an end to the expansion of factory farms.

Only the Green party said it would introduce a ban on new factory farms. It also pledged to enforce regulations on how densely animals can be housed and to forbid the routine use of antibiotics on farm animals – which have both fuelled the spread of drug-resistant diseases.

Clare Oxborrow, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “If we are to stop the worst climate change impacts and restore nature, we will need to shift to less meat-intensive, healthier diets and stop the expansion of these damaging mega-farms.

“Elections should be when we grapple with these big issues, not avoid them.”

Claire Palmer, director of Animal Justice Project told the i and TBIJ that the lack of political commitment to reducing the expansion of megafarms was “deeply disappointing”.

“Politicians must use their authority to halt the spread of megafarms immediately and demonstrate their support for public concerns – many of which vehemently oppose factory farming.”

Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, said large-scale farming is needed to meet the UK’s demand for food: “The UK has 65 million people needing three meals every day, so all production has to be, by definition, large-scale.”

Dozens of pigs are housed in a shed Farms holding more than 2,000 pigs are classified as ‘intensive’ Greg Taylor/Alamy

He said small-scale farming is not necessarily more sustainable than large-scale farming, which is permitted, controlled and regulated to feed a lot of people to good standards in a short space of time. “To unfairly label it as a bad thing overlooks the essential role it plays in our food security and economic stability,” he said.

In the UK, there is no legal classification of what constitutes a megafarm. In the US, a megafarm is defined as an operation that houses 125,000 broiler chickens, 82,000 laying hens, 2,500 pigs or 700 dairy or 1,000 beef cattle.

The Environment Agency and its devolved counterparts classify livestock farms as “intensive” if they hold at least 40,000 poultry, 2,000 pigs or 750 breeding sows.

Gareth Morgan, head of farming policy at the Soil Association, said: “The next UK government must act to curb the boom of livestock megafarms or we’ll see more dead zones in our rivers and more of them facing the same desperate fate as the River Wye.

“The millions of chickens being housed in factory farms in the UK produce a quantity of muck that is proving impossible to manage sustainably,” he said, also highlighting the need for a level playing field for nature-friendly farmers and a system that does not grant permits to huge intensive livestock farms.

“Farmers operating these units are often doing so out of financial necessity and need a viable alternative. Urgent government action is needed to solve this crisis and create a pathway for farmers to move to a more resilient and sustainable future,” Morgan added.

In April, the i and TBIJ revealed how emissions of ammonia from industrial-scale poultry production were surging across the UK’s megafarming hotspots.

The gas, which is emitted by livestock and farm waste, mixes with other pollutants to create particles linked to increased death rates, respiratory problems and cardiovascular diseases. Ammonia also harms biodiversity and ecosystems.

The government has committed to reduce ammonia emissions by 2030. And although pollution linked to chicken farms has fallen across England as a whole, it has increased sharply in Wales, where emissions from poultry farms surged by nearly 40% in recent years, as well in other mega-farming hotspots.

A separate investigation found that intensive livestock farms in England had breached environmental regulations thousands of times in recent years. Records obtained by TBIJ and the i of Environment Agency inspections at intensive poultry and pig units detailed violations affecting water, air and land.

Among the more than 3,000 incidents were the “routine” discharge of slurry and dirty water, maggot-infested carcass bins and the illegal incineration of pigs.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats declined to comment. The Conservative and Green parties did not respond to questions on their policies.

Reporters: Andrew Wasley and Lucie Heath
Environment editor: Robert Soutar
Deputy editors: Chrissie Giles and Katie Mark
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editors: Alex Hess
Fact checker: Somesh Jha
Impact producer: Grace Murray

Our Food and Farming project is partly funded by the Montpelier Foundation and partly by the Hollick Family Foundation. None of our funders have any influence over our editorial decisions or output