Northern Ireland news

As Brexit-driven food insecurity accelerates transition to super-farms, what are the environmental and health costs?

A decision to grant planning applications for two pig farms will see `two and a half pigs per person' in one council area. Opponents of intensive farming tell Bimpe Archer that Northern Ireland's public health and eco-systems "are at a critical stage"

close up of cute pink pig in wooden farm with black eyes looking in camera

"THE more food we have in Northern Ireland, the better for everyone."

Roderick Swann, a councillor and farmer, is frustrated at ongoing protests in his borough over two controversial pig farms.

His particular ire is directed at those who he believes don't understand what farming is and how families get the food for their table.

"It will be a benefit to Northern Ireland's economy in the midst of Brexit. The more of our own produce we can produce, the better. We don't want hormone-injected beef and everything coming in here."

The Antrim and Newtownabbey UUP councillor had proposed the motion to grant planning approval recommended for a facility on Calhame Road in Straid, outside Ballyclare.

In Northern Ireland the intensification of farming is a growing reality, with the number of breeding sows having increased by a quarter to almost 48,000.

According to the last agricultural census, 83 per cent (562,355) of pigs are amassed in just 60 super-farms of more than 2,000 per facility - the true average actually over 9,000 per farm.

The Straid facility will see an existing pig farm of six units housing 4,200 finishing pigs demolished and replaced with three new pig units for 2,755 sows, 235 replacement breeders and five boars.

Protestors have said that while there is a reduction in adult pigs, it will be a breeding unit with "thousands of piglets, 30 per sow, they will be there for several weeks before they are moved to be fattened".

"The idea of a pig factory is nonsense," Mr Swann insists.

"It is in no way a factory. It is a pig farm. I totally disagree with people calling it a factory.

"I'm a cow man, I do dairy farming. I can understand protestors are going to use any argument but we need to look at the future of the agri-food industry in Northern Ireland.

"We have farm quality assurance here. They are restricted in the number of pigs they put in each pen. They have a scrubber system."

Mr Swann is most taken with the scrubber system which he saw in action in Germany.

Ammonia emissions are produced when urine and faeces mix - creating slurry. Large numbers of animals mean large concentrations of ammonia in the environment.

"It's a system to remove the smell that you get in a pig farm. They take ammonia out - 75 per cent-plus of any smells that are emitted. There is no smell, no run-off and they use old Christmas trees and all that sort of stuff to do it." he said.

However, it is not simply the pungent smell of ammonia which is of concern. It has been linked to lung damage, heart disease, diabetes, problems with memory, cognitive decline, respiratory issues, higher death rates and lower birth rates.

Campaigners have pointed out that permission was granted for 14,846 m3 of slurry for the new Straid unit, while the present unit has a permit for maximum of 6,240 m3.

The change of use from a finishing unit where pigs are brought in from a growing unit at 35kg and fattened to between 105-110kg, to a breeding unit, has sounded warning bells from environmentalists who warn that sows produce "a lot more volume of slurry per pig", with a higher percentage of ammonia and phosphates.

Groups such as Friends of the Earth claim that, at around "30 to 40 per cent maximum", the amount of ammonia extracted from the air thought scrubbing is much lower than industry estimates.

Green Party leader Clare Bailey told the assembly in November that across a number of assessed protected habitats sites, critical levels of ammonia are exceeded "by over 300 per cent, year-on-year-on-year".

Research by the British Heart Foundation projects that, in general, poor air quality leads to 500 premature deaths across Northern Ireland each year.

Harriett Moore-Boyd, one of the residents alarmed by the intensification in south Antrim pig farms, said they are deeply concerned at the health and environmental threats.

"We are upset and heartbroken," she said of members of the Newtownabbey Pig Factory Campaign Group following the planning committee's decision to pass the Straid application and an amendment to permission for another proposed pig farm at Reahill Road.

Ms Moore-Boyd said the passing of "all considerations before it, with no restraints... effectively means the roughly 60,000 residents in the greater Newtownabbey area will be matched by about two and a half pigs per person once all the constructions are completed and stocked".

She warned that if this continues the north will be in the same position as Denmark, the only European Union country with more pigs than people.

"The information worldwide is consistent and increasingly so - intensive agriculture, particularly factory farming of animals and/or birds, is cruel, toxic, inhumane, polluting, and needs to stop," she claimed.

Friends of the Earth director James Orr said pollution from large factory farms is "Northern Ireland's dirty secret".

"The health of Northern Ireland's people, habitats and eco-systems really are at a critical stage," he said.

"Pollution is causing real harm. Trees are dying in some places and it is also affecting the lungs of children. A significant amount of that is from agriculture."

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs' (Daera) says "ammonia is not a unique challenge to Northern Ireland or even the UK - countries across the world are working to find solutions to what is a complex issue with no quick fix".

It said the task is "to reduce our emissions whilst at the same time, help our agriculture sector to become more efficient and sustainable in the longer term".

"So far, there has been excellent work across all sectors to move to more efficient and sustainable technologies and an understanding of the need to capture that good work and build on it further and at pace."

It cites progress such increasing `low emission slurry spreading' but stresses it is important to get "the right mix of measures... (to) ensure that sufficiently ambitious levels of emission reduction are achieved to relieve pressure on habitats and improve public health, while supporting `Green Growth' and the sustainable development of a thriving agriculture sector".

In the quest for "a high quality evidence base", Daera has commissioned a major research programme on ammonia, led by the Agri Food Biosciences Institute (Afbi).

Preliminary data released last week shows ammonia concentrations increasing in spring with the start of slurry spreading, peaking in summer and gradually decreasing to reach their lowest levels in winter.

Afbi has recommended the use of air scrubbers and pH adjustment of slurry "in-house" for pigs and cattle - although it acknowledges these are expensive.

It has identified five other "cost-effective measures" - including changes to feed and `genetic improvement' - which it believes could "produce a 21 per cent reduction (in ammonia emissions)... which would significantly contribute to the achievement of targets as set by international protocols and national legislation".

It is due to release a report on the levels of reduction across Northern Ireland from detailed modelling exercises.

Mr Orr said it is vital that Daera's movement from a `Going for Growth' to a `Green Growth' strategy "should be the point where we reject the model of industrial farming".

"It doesn't produce wholesome food, a lot of it is exported, a lot of it is being fed with soy that comes from South Ameria where they are clearing rainforests to produce it," he said.

"We have increasing levels of ammonia being produced and animals which are born and never see daylight.

"This is not good for farmers either. We need more mixed and family farms."

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