River Action officially launched on 18 February this year with a campaign against the poultry company Noble Foods, one of the UK’s biggest egg producers, and its operations in the catchment area of the River Wye.
The River Wye, which stretches for 134 miles from Plynlimon in mid-Wales to the Severn estuary, is one of many British Rivers that has seen a significant deterioration over recent years due to increased agricultural pollution.
Conservationists say the majority of the pollution is from an increasing number of free-range poultry farms near its banks.
Sites producing six million birds have been approved in the Wye catchment area in the last five years alone, according to Wales Environment Link, a network of environmental, countryside and heritage non-governmental organisations working across Wales.
This is believed to have led to a doubling of phosphate levels in the lower Wye over the past six years.
As of July 2020, in the counties of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Powys there were 500 farms with a total of 1,420 intensive poultry units, containing over 44 million birds, according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
Critics say that weak regulatory institutions and poor enforcement of existing legislation means that chicken excrement, rich in phosphates, and other chemicals that are spread on the ground around the units are being flushed into the river.
Such pollution causes deadly algal blooms that suffocate river plants, such as ranunculus, and cause the river’s brown trout, chub and barbel to die off, removing food for birds such as the kingfisher.
Noble Foods, which uses the brand Happy Egg, is the area’s biggest producer and, as well as directly operating some farms in the area, also acts as a distributor for eggs produced by independent farmers in the region.
It controls around 75% of the poultry farming market in the River Wye catchment area, according to River Action.
The campaign group believes that by applying direct pressure to companies, such as Noble Foods, it can force them to take responsibility for the environmental integrity of their industrial processes and that of their supply chains – applying pressure to the other companies within its supply chain to improve standards.
Charles Watson, the former group chief executive of the global strategic communications consultancy Financial Dynamics, is the founder and chairman of River Action.
In March, he released the full line-up of River Action’s advisory board, which included an array of high-profile officials and campaigners, including the former environment minister Richard Benyon, the journalist George Monbiot, and the activist Feargal Sharkey, who recently threatened to launch legal action against the government over the poor state of England’s rivers.
Watson believes that his organisation can help create change by targeting large agribusinesses directly rather than pushing specifically for government policy changes, as some other campaign groups do.
“It is another prong of attack,” said Watson. “It appears that regulators have almost given up on trying to curtail the damage being done by the poultry farms in this area.
“As things stand, large agribusinesses play a critical role in the supply chain. They have immense power over the smaller companies that they deal with and that is why we are targeting them first.”
Initially, River Action wrote to Noble Foods chief executive, Duncan Everett, calling for the company to publish details about how the business dealt with environmental issues, including information about measures used to prevent nutrient run-off at sites that it operates as well as at sites that it procures eggs from.
It also asked the company to publish how much money it had invested in these measures over the last year.
On 15 March, Everett responded with a letter saying that his company had started to carry out site visits to gain “understanding of the issues faced on farms” and was “assessing contract producer farms”.
He said that once the evaluations were complete it would be working with the non-profit Rivers Foundation to develop mitigation techniques.
Watson said that he was shocked that basic assessments of the environmental impact of Noble Foods’ intensive poultry units was only just beginning despite evidence that the run-off from the poultry industry had played a major role in the ecological deterioration of the River Wye over a period of years.
In a second letter, published on 7 April 2021, River Action called for more commitments from Noble Foods.
These included a deadline to complete site visits and publish a summary of findings related to the issue of nutrient run-off.
It also asked Noble Foods to commit to invest “an appropriate and disclosed level of capital expenditure” to implement measures to tackle nutrient run-off.
In a statement, Noble Foods said that “protecting the environment is extremely important” for the company.
It also said it was still carrying out environmental assessments and work had been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic as well as avian influenza housing restrictions, which limited movement between farms.
Stuart Singleton-White, the head of campaigns at the Angling Trust, believes that the campaign targeting Noble Foods has already helped to change the narrative around water pollution in the UK.
“I think they've already been really useful and powerful in helping to develop their narrative and bring a spotlight particularly on some of the big agribusinesses,” he said.
“Though it may take time, large-scale change is definitely possible using these tactics.
“Big agricultural businesses like Noble Foods will be buying from a huge number of different famers and these companies have their own inspectors that visit these farms.
“They have the power to set standards. They can tell these smaller suppliers that they will stop using them if they don’t fulfil certain requirements - and this could be a real driver for change.”
Other groups have also welcomed the creation of River Action, saying that because it isn’t reliant on cooperation with agricultural businesses it can campaign more aggressively and exert more pressure than some other entities that need to maintain a working relationship with companies in the agricultural sector.
“River Action is providing a very helpful impetus for big agricultural businesses to work more collaboratively with environmental organisations,” said one source that requested anonymity because they work closely with agricultural companies.
“Targeting businesses like Noble Foods, and exposing their complicity in environmental destruction, makes sense because often they are the ones that are taking big profits, driving down prices, and forcing farmers into a position where they have little choice but to pollute.”
River Action was created as a direct response to what is sees as weak and underfunded regulatory institutions – and the tactics that it has adopted have been specifically chosen to try and achieve results without government intervention, but many campaigners remain concerned that its effectiveness will be reduced by a lack support from official institutions like the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales.
Nick Measham is on the advisory board of River Action as well as being the chief executive of Salmon and Trout Conservation, a charity that campaigns to protect wild salmon and trout.
He believes that River Action is already helping to create change – but just how much impact it will be able to have will be limited if there is no political will to hold polluters to account.
“I think the kind of work being done by Rivers Action is part of the solution, but it is not the whole solution,” he said.
“Calling out companies and exposing corporate environmental misdemeanours will increase pressure to change behaviour, but there is a limit on what it can achieve without a robust and effective regulatory framework in place.”
Rhiannon Niven, a senior policy officer at the RSPB, also believes that campaign groups like River Action need to be supported by strong regulatory institutions in order to achieve their full potential.
“There's definitely a place for high pressure campaigning,” she said. “But ultimately, achievements could be limited if the government doesn't engage by improving policy and enforcement.”
The next 12 months are likely to prove critical for River Action as it attempts to show that it can push companies to make meaningful changes that go beyond statements and environmental rhetoric.