16 December 1999
Farm pollution costs Britain billions
By Donald MacPhail
CLEARING up the pollution caused by modern farming methods costs Britain billions of pounds every year, claims a report in the New Scientist.
A study by the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex has estimated that the negative effects of British farming cost £2.3 billion a year
The bill includes the cost of cleaning up pollution, repairing habitats and coping with sickness caused by farming. Figures come from many sources.
Report author Jules Pretty said that water companies spent £214m in1996 removing pesticides, nitrates and farm pathogens from drinking water.
The bill for food poisoning includes an allowance for the victims lost wages as well as the cost of their hospital treatment.
The annual tab of £25m for nature conservation is the figure English Nature has calculated as the cost of restoring endangered species and wildlife habitats.
Mr Pretty said the bill was “very conservative” because of a lack of data. Some costs were excluded, such as the health impact on farmers of using pesticides.
He also ignored intangible costs such as the value of landscapes damaged by modern agricultural methods.
And he backed the argument for redirecting subsidies to farms that did not damage the environment – a move announced by the government last week.
Agriculture minister Nick Brown unveiled plans to switch subsidies away from food production to boost funding agri-environment schemes by around £1bn.
This is part of a total £1.6bn in environmental expenditure expected over seven years from the radical reform of the UK farm subsidy system.
Some farmers are already taking steps to clean up the countyside, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The organisation, which represents some of worlds richest countries, says British farmers have reduced nitrate pollution by a quarter in the past 12 years.
This reduction is in the overall nitrate surplus from chemical fertiliser, livestock manure, and the amount taken up by crops,
Kevin Parris, who worked on the OECD report, told the BBC Farming Today programme that more efficient fertiliser use helped achieve these cuts.
But Britains nitrate levels are still relatively high by EU standards.