Improving advice provisioning surrounding diffuse water pollution from agriculture

It’s been a while since I’ve managed to publish anything so I’ve decided to take the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone by publishing my latest research poster as a blog article (which is either terribly lazy or resourceful of me!). Anyway, this is the first time I’ve published a post about my doctoral research because I wanted to complete a substantial amount of fieldwork before presenting my findings in a public domain.

I am, however, still in the midst of fieldwork but I’ve begun presenting at conferences so decided it was time to share some of my initial findings. As you’ll read below, water pollution, alongside soil health, is a huge issue being faced both across England and the rest of the world to varying degrees, with some areas facing extreme pollution incidents which pose significant risks to ecological and human health. It’s therefore vital that we all contribute to the ongoing debate into how we can restore and protect our watercourses and soils whilst maintaining the ability to produce enough food for a growing population.

The issue

Diffuse water pollution has numerous detrimental implications for the environment and human health. Despite efforts to improve water quality, just 14% of rivers in England were ecologically healthy in 2017, a significant drop from 25% in 2010 (WWF, 2017).  Water pollution is financially costly; ~£225 million/year is spent treating potable supplies for pollutants in the UK (BIS, 2011). Agriculture is the most prolific source of diffuse water pollution, contributing to ~81% of total nitrate (N), 31% of total phosphorus (P), and 72% of sediment pollution in UK rivers (Zhang et al., 2014).

Some causes of diffuse pollution from agriculture:

The Environment Agency (2014) estimated that 33% of rivers not achieving ‘good’ status according to the EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD) failed due to agricultural pollution. However, water pollution is a ‘wicked’ problem, as clean water is a ‘public good’ and it arises cumulatively from numerous sources; many farmers may therefore not accept responsibility for diffuse pollution. It is vital that various stakeholders collaborate at a catchment scale to improve water quality, underscoring the importance of an effective agricultural extension system.

Agricultural advice surrounding diffuse pollution

Agricultural extension, traditionally focused on productivity, has become increasingly focused on environmental issues since the establishment of various regulations including the EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD; 2000/60/EC).   However, many organisations have limited resources and may not be able to provide relevant and timely information to farmers. Furthermore, the recent paradigm shift towards knowledge exchange rather than a linear top-down approach requires farmer empowerment and co-production, which many organisations have struggled to adopt.

Farmers are expected to be compliant with many environmental regulations; there is, however, concern that they may not be aware of why they need to adopt these measures. The New Farming Rules for Water, implemented in April 2018 (Defra, 2018), appear to have received little publicity, with little explanation for farmers as to why the rules have been implemented; this is something I’m exploring to see whether farmers see these new rules as credible, relevant, and legitimate.

My interdisciplinary research is also exploring whether engaging scientific evidence could increase farmers’ inclination to uptake advice and comply with regulations by presenting a geophysical approach, sediment source fingerprinting, in an engaging way to determine whether this could become a useful evidence tool in the future.


Sediment fingerprinting

Sediment fingerprinting (SF) is a complex approach which allows the researcher to apportion target sediment samples to possible pollution sources. This study is utilising an interdisciplinary approach by carrying out SF before presenting the results to farmers to determine whether they see this information as credible and relevant.

The full extent of the complexities surrounding the SF approach has previously been described in various journal articles (e.g. Collins et al., 2017). This study aims to make this scientific evidence accessible to non-scientists, therefore bridging the barriers inherent to science-non-science interfaces. It is vital to ensure farmers are aware of the uncertainties associated with the results of SF to avoid any risks of disengagement.

Conceptual framework

These results provide an initial insight into how both farmers and advisors may respond to new scientific evidence such as sediment fingerprinting. Some advisors have shown scepticism towards the salience of sediment fingerprinting and argue that they already have a multitude of hard evidence tools to utilise. Many advisors have, however, criticised some existing tools, with the majority contending that hard evidence is essential for advice provisioning where it is relevant, credible, and local. Collaborative approaches are also vital for disseminating scientific evidence and farmers’ existing tacit knowledge should not be underestimated

One thought on “Improving advice provisioning surrounding diffuse water pollution from agriculture

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  1. Congratulations. You have obviously done a lot of work, and advanced the science of pollution detection. You mention that Agricultural Extension is usually focussed on production, but from where I am there seems to be very little impartical extension work going on in the UK at the moment. (The closue of the National Agricultural Advisory Service caused a lot of problems that are coming to light now) Most current “advisers” are employed by chemical companies with an obvious incentive to sell more of their products. I have heard horror stories, for example BBC TV Countryfile interviewed a farmer who had been advised to apply an insecticide 6 times to insects which were already “80% resistant” to it. Both the presenter and the farmer seemed to accept that his was sensible advice! On a discussion forum I read an account of a farmer who was keeping 280 cattle on 40ha of land! The cost of feed was bankrupting him, and the dung accumulated in the cattle sheds could not be applied safely on his fields. Someone was advising him that that keeping excessive numbers of cattle on small areas of land was a good idea. The Mega dairies have the same problem, having to import thousands of tonnes of feed and export the same ammount of dung.
    But really this is a problem that can only be solved by Government taking the economics of farming in hand. With supermarkets keeping prices down, farmers with large debts have no choice other than expand production. THose who avoid debt and farm within the natural ability of the land are now considered primitive stick in the muds. They are given no credit for their avoidance of pollution, diverse wildlife, and healthy bank balance, and are left to work round the clock for little reward. Work, eat, work sleep a little, work again. One 18 hour shoft follows another throughout the year, with little income and no time to spend what they do get. There is huge temptation to join the “miilionaires” (of debt) club, and farm the land to death and sell up and retire.
    There are of course various schemes – Organic, LEAF, and various marketing schemes that larger farmers can join. But often the membership and insepction fees are too big for small farms, and for others, most schemes do not cater for the specific geology, latitute, altitude etc of particular farms. Farming is essentially a very local business, and large environmental schemes, often fail in their objectives on particular farms, often because the farm is not inspected before going into the scheme, and the rules are applied infexibly regardless of the damage they do. But for the farms, for whom these shemes were designed, they do offer non-commercial advice which may be of genuine use.

    Liked by 1 person

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