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ENVIRONMENT

The dark trace in the water of the cheap meat big business

Aragón (Spain), Herefordshire (United Kingdom) and Lower Saxony (Germany) have become areas with a very high density of intensive farms. An international investigation reveals the dynamics behind the expansion and the pollution of rivers, aquifers and even tap water that it brought along.

Aragón (Spain), Herefordshire (United Kingdom) and Lower Saxony (Germany) have become areas with a very high density of intensive farms. An international investigation reveals the dynamics behind the expansion and the pollution of rivers, aquifers and even tap water that it brought along.

SPANISH VERSION
SPAIN:
Antonio Delgado and Ana Tudela
UNITED KINGDOM:
Nicola Cutcher, Tom Levitt and Robin Eveleigh
GERMANY:
Holly Young
TRANSLATION TO ENGLISH:
Lucia Benavides
WEB DESIGN, VISUALIZATION AND COORDINATION:
DATADISTA
JULY 24, 2022

Pork production for export has been one Spain and Germany’s big economic successes in this first quarter of the century. Chicken is a keystone seller for Tesco, the British supermarket giant. Cheap meat allows for large profits, but its low-cost production has implied unprecedented farm concentration. The areas where these farms have been established are no longer able to cope with the water damage caused by animal excrements.

An international investigation led by DATADISTA and The Guardian, disseminated in collaboration with elDiario.es and funded by Journalismfund.eu, locates areas with very high concentration of intensive livestock farming, digs into how these territories were grabbed by the meat business and unveils the degree to which water resources have been damaged.

ARAGÓN, LAND OF WORLD-CLASS PORK MEGAPRODUCERS

In April 2011, the mayor of Ejea de los Caballeros was the socialist Javier Lambán, now president of the Government of the Autonomous Community of Aragón. He was present during the opening of the feed factory that the Catalan company Vall Companys had built in his town. Investment: 25 million euros, more than any annual municipal budget that Ejea de los Caballeros has ever seen in its entire history.

Vall Companys, Piensos Costa, Grupo Jorge: these corporations are important members of the Spanish pork sector and some of them are among the world's pork mega-producers. They were transforming the region of Aragón, in northeastern Spain, into their land anchor for a booming international expansion. They needed to build farms. More and more farms. Bigger and bigger. As close as possible to their feed mills and slaughterhouses. Cost saving is one of the keys to their business. The fuse had been lit.
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SHORT OF LAND TO DUMP SLURRY

The pigs belong to the corporation, feed and medicines are supplied by its subsidiaries, and these are also in charge of transport, veterinary services, and everything except managing the slurry, the pig excrements. Precisely this part of the production process poses the greatest risk of nitrate water pollution and of greenhouse gas emissions but is the sole responsibility of the contracting farmer. The slurry is mainly used to fertilize fields but transporting it more than 5 km from the farm is not profitable for the farmer. Using drones, it was not difficult to locate freshly spread slurry again and again on the same field, right next to a pig farm.

A pioneer analysis of 1.8 million agricultural plots carried out as part of this research and using data from the Institute for Environmental Management of Aragón (INAGA), reveals that some 400,000 hectares in Aragón already contain more nitrogen than allowed by applicable regulations. This is 25% of the land suitable for fertilization. In thousands of plots, nitrogen concentration is three times above permitted levels. And under the soil, nitrate concentrations in aquifers - which are the future source of the population’s water supply- are many times higher than legal limits.
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DO NOT DRINK THAT WATER

In La Sotonera (Huesca), 903 people live alongside 14 pig farms with a capacity of 46,733 animals. In recent years, in Lierta, a small urban centre belonging to La Sotonera, the municipal council trucks have been driving weekly through the streets in summer, distributing water bottles among the neighbours. The tap water is undrinkable. Nitrate levels far exceed the limit of 50 milligrams per litre considered admissible for human consumption by the World Health Organization and the legal maximum according to European Union regulations.

Between 2016 and 2020, 49 municipalities in Aragon had values above 50mg/liter in tap water at some point during the year, according to the System for National Information on Drinking Water. In 2020, the General Directorate of Public Health in Aragon detected 93 measurements above 50 mg/litre affecting a population of 6,997 people.
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COOPTED PROTEST

On May 28th, 2022, the city of Huesca dressed up for Armed Forces Day, when more than 3,200 military personnel under the presidency of the King and Queen of Spain paraded through the city. For a few days, the city banned slurry and manure application within two kilometers of the last house. They did not want visitors to suffer the otherwise ordinary odours. Locals rarely complain. In many municipalities, a majority of people depend on pig farming in one way or another, and opposing it leads to conflict.

The autonomous legislation in Aragón has left much of the responsibility for the approval and development of farms in the hands of municipalities, who see in this expansion an opportunity to increase their income far beyond their normal annual budgets. There are exceptions: the municipality of Loporzano has shown that you can be pro-pig and stand up to intensive farming models.
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CHEAP TESCO CHICKEN ON THE RIVER BELOVED BY THE BRITISH

In 2013, British supermarket giant Tesco signed an agreement with Cargill, the owner of a chicken processing plant in Hereford, to bring cheap poultry meat to its shelves, or as Tesco puts it, to achieve its goal of "providing healthy and affordable food for millions of people". That same year, Cargill announced a £35 million investment to expand its facilities. It needed capacity to meet Tesco's orders. Requests for approval to set up chicken farms in the area multiplied. Scientists, campaigners and politicians point to chicken droppings as one of the causes of phosphorus pollution in the River Wye, one of the UK's most cherished rivers.
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LOWER SAXONY, THE GERMAN PIG BELT

There is an old saying, rather unloved by local people, that if you roll down the window while driving through Germany, you’ll always know from the smell when you are in Lower Saxony.

This is the heartland of a €6bn (£5.1bn) pork industry that sends thousands of tonnes of German pigmeat across the world. But it has done so at a cost. Maps of the Schweinegürtel (pig belt) glow a toxic red if you show ammonia emissions from farm animals and nitrates in groundwater.
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