Working with water and pesticides and discharge permits

 

How our vision aligns with the environment

 
 

The Watercress Company has some farms operating in the headwaters of the River Itchen (Hampshire), an iconic chalk stream which is designated as a SAC (Special Area of Conservation) under the EU Habitats Directive. As a Company, we must protect and preserve the ecology of this river to the best of our ability whilst maintaining a viable business. We take our responsibilities seriously and have not applied any pesticides (including herbicides) to our watercress beds in the UK for many years.  The removal of pesticides was a conscious policy which began 20 years ago and was completely voluntary. In order to achieve this we have adapted our processes including the introduction of shaker belts which agitate the crop at the point of harvest thereby enabling us to remove many of the insects living within the watercress beds (there are many!). We have also worked with our customers to enhance the process of rinsing out any remaining insects after harvest.  The production of an element of contingency enables us to bypass areas with high insect populations and our customers have helped by tolerating some crop with minor non-progressive damage such as small leaf holes or cut leaves. However it is not just in the area of pesticides that we have seen significant reductions and elimination.  Over the past 9 years we have completely eliminated the use of nitrogen and reduced our fertiliser (phosphate) use by over 88%. Further information on the subject of crop nutrition can be found here.

Recent challenges by Salmon and Trout Conservation

During 2018 a challenge was made by Salmon and Trout Conservation under the Environmental Damage Regulations 2009 (EDR) to the Environment Agency (EA) that environmental damage was being caused to the River Itchen SAC downstream of the discharges from a local salad washing and bagging operation (Bakkavor  - Alresford Salads) and The Watercress Company (TWC). The challenge covered all sorts of different types of environmental damage, and the EA has an obligation to investigate this in depth.

What ‘environmental damage’ means:

The Environmental Damage Regulations do not cover all types of damage to the environment.

They only cover environmental damage which is one or more of damage to:

  1. protected species and natural habitats or to a site of special scientific interest (these are referred to collectively in the guidance as damage to species and habitats);

  2. surface water or groundwater (these are referred to collectively in the guidance as damage to water); and,

  3. land.

These three types of damage are defined below.

The Regulations also apply where there are imminent threats of environmental damage.

Damage to species and habitats

Damage to species and habitats includes:

i. Damage to protected species and natural habitats

ii. Damage to a site of special scientific interest (SSSI)

Damage to protected species and natural habitats is damage that: …has a significant adverse effect on reaching or maintaining the favourable conservation status of the protected species or natural habitat. (schedule 1.1 (1))

This only applies to damage outside sites of special scientific interest. Protected species and natural habitats refers to certain specific species and habitats that are protected under EU legislation.

Damage to a site of special scientific interest is damage within a SSSI to:

(a) the species or habitats notified under section 28 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981; or

(b) protected species and natural habitats

The damage must have an adverse effect on the integrity of the site (that is, the coherence of its ecological structure and function, across its whole area, that enables it to sustain the habitat, complex of habitats or the levels of populations of the species affected). (schedule 1.4(2))

Damage to water

Damage to water includes:

i. Damage to surface water

ii. Damage to groundwater

Damage to surface water is: ... damage to a surface water body classified as such pursuant to Council Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy such that —

a) a biological quality element listed in Annex V to that Directive,

b) the level of a chemical listed in the legislation in Annex IX or a chemical listed in Annex X to that Directive, or Environmental Damage Regulations Guidance - November 2009 12

c) a physicochemical quality element listed in Annex V to that Directive, changes sufficiently to lower the status of the water body in accordance with Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council (whether or not the water body is in fact reclassified as being of lower status). (Regulation 4(3))

Damage to groundwater is: …any damage to a groundwater body such that its conductivity, level or concentration of pollutants changes sufficiently to lower its status in accordance with Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council (and for pollutants Directive 2006/118/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration (whether or not the groundwater body is in fact reclassified as being of lower status). (Regulation 4(4))

Damage to land

Damage to land is: …contamination of land by substances, preparations, organisms or microorganisms that results in a significant risk of adverse effects on human health. (Regulation 4(5))

The investigation has taken 11 months to complete but the report has now been published. The details of the EA investigation are in the report at the bottom of the page. This information contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0 which can be viewed via the following link: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3/

 

The conclusions of the report are below:

EDR Conclusions.jpg
 
 

Where “The Company” is referred to in these conclusions, it relates to Bakkavor – Alresford Salads. These conclusions (all of which are supported by evidence) clearly demonstrate that no environmental damage has been caused to surface water, the River Itchen SSSI, the River Itchen SAC or to any European protected species or natural habitats off-site. 

The challenge by Salmon and Trout Conservation was limited to the River Itchen SAC, which is well downstream of the Bakkavor and TWC discharge points. But during their investigation, the EA also decided to include the Alresford Pond SSSI in the scope of the report.  Their assessment has shown that no environmental damage has been caused to the pond in relation to either organic inputs (mainly from sewage discharges) or in relation to total phosphorus. The reduction in phosphorus applications to watercress beds of 88% (as mentioned previously) has led to an improving situation, and this is clearly demonstrated in the EA report.

There was evidence of environmental damage from total nitrogen in Alresford Pond. This is a legacy issue of nitrogen usage on surrounding agricultural land, and this is evidenced by the high N levels present in the groundwater. At TWC we stopped using nitrogen on our watercress beds in 2015/16 so watercress production cannot be a factor in this area now and is not a contributor to the groundwater legacy issue as applications would have historically been made to surface waters.

The report has been unable to confirm whether environmental damage has occurred to Alresford Pond from suspended solids that can be solely attributed to either Bakkavor or TWC. There are many sources of inputs of suspended solids to the pond, and clearly there are large amounts of sediment present which is having an effect on the habitat and biodiversity. TWC has modified our farming practices to limit the quantity of suspended solids being created as a result of our production activities, and combined with the management of the settlement ponds (which are present on each of our farms prior to discharge) have seen significant reductions in the amount generated. Much of what is present in the pond is historic, with sediment cores showing that there have been marked increases since the 1970s, most likely associated with increased agricultural intensification.

The final point to note from the report is that they have been unable to confirm whether environmental damage has been caused to Alresford Pond SSSI by pesticides, however they have said that there is potential that damage may have occurred.

This is because the process of washing the salads uses pure borehole water to rinse the salad leaves which is then discharged into the river. Conventional factories that wash in chlorinated water are able to recycle their water several times, but a system using pure water from the local aquifer requires a larger quantity of water as it can only be used once. The move away from the use of chlorine was taken in 2015/16 with Alresford factory becoming one of the few factories in the country to wash without chemicals. The challenge from Salmon and Trout Conservation is that the factory is washing pesticides from salad leaves that is then passed on to the river from the factory. It must be stressed that all salad leaves washed by Bakkavor at the Alresford factory comply with the stringent standards set by the EU and are fit for human consumption even before the washing process so any residues present are within tolerances for human consumption.  The washing process is designed to remove low levels of microbiological contamination and foreign bodies such as insects or weeds, not to remove chemicals.

The Watercress Company is involved because the factory wash water, when it is discharged, mixes with the discharge water from our watercress beds before it enters the river. It is important to explain why this happens; in 2015/16 the factory switched from washing salads using low volumes of water containing a disinfectant to the new process of washing in pure borehole water.  Because the fresh water can only be used once, and a higher volume is needed to ensure the same level of cleanliness is achieved as with the use of chlorine, it is needed in much higher volumes. The existing factory permit to discharge water (issued by the Environment Agency) was not large enough for the volume of water being used without chlorine and as we had a much higher volume allowance (headroom) The Watercress Company was approached by Bakkavor to request that we would allow this water to be sent through our discharge point.

We agreed to this and the water passes along the side of our farm, bypassing the watercress growing operation.  At the time, there was no discussion regarding applying pesticide limits to this permit as we do not apply any pesticides to the watercress beds and neither do Bakkavor use any pesticides. The factory washes salad leaves that are approved as safe to eat based on residues of any chemicals before they are washed; the process is not to remove any pesticide residues, but to remove any low level microbial or extraneous matter on the leaves from the farming process. It worth noting the same suppliers growing these leaves (do/could) supply businesses in the UK and EU that do not wash the leaves, but sell them as packed unwashed and you can find these in the supermarkets side by side with the washed products on the shelves.  This demonstrates that the factory is not planning or intending to create any discharge that could contain pesticides in the wash water. 

Furthermore there is another local watercress growing/salad washing factory that has already done something similar, but unlike their process, we do not use the factory wash water for growing a crop of watercress because this water is not under our direct control. Our commitment to our customers is to use only bore hole or spring water in our watercress beds. 

 
 

What has been done?

 
 

When the challenge was made by Salmon and Trout Conservation, The Environment Agency requested to deploy passive samplers in our discharge channel for a period of 6 weeks to see if any pesticides could be detected.  Some of this information is cumulative sampling (where minute particles are accumulated over time) without a quantitative level where others are a snapshot test of one minute with a detection level. The results of this monitoring are available from the Environment Agency. Borehole water from the source supplying the factory was also analysed and some agricultural pesticides (not used in the salad crops being washed) were detected. These are a legacy of the previous decades when pesticides were more heavily used in agriculture in general and have been filtering into the groundwater at very low levels for many years.

At The Watercress Company we have been monitoring pesticide residues in our groundwater supplies on this farm for many years without finding any measurable contamination.  We have provided the results for the last 2 years below. There have been no pesticide residues in our watercress production water and one possible reason for this may be the depth of the boreholes. The bores used for the supply to the watercress beds are around 40-45 m deep enabling us to get a clean sample free from chemical contaminants. However other boreholes in the area are of variable depths and coupled with complex hydrogeology it may make them more prone to pesticide residues which might be present in higher concentrations in the water nearer the surface.

We have recently attended meetings with both Bakkavor and the Environment Agency where we were informed that some levels of pesticides, not related to the groundwater or applications on the surrounding land, had been detected. The levels or names of the chemicals have not been issued but we expect to have this information by the end of the first week of June. These relate to tests carried out in October 2018.

In response to this we decided in mid May 2019 to carry out our own pesticide residue testing on the water being discharged through our discharge point. In the interim period we were approached by Countryfile for comment in a feature they are planning on the issue which is due to be aired on Sunday 9th June 2019.  As ours is a good news story (no pesticides applied and an 88% reduction in fertiliser use) we agreed to contribute. 

The test results from our most recent samples were not completed by the laboratory until after the interview with Joe.  As these have come up completely clear, with no measurable pesticides found, this was unfortunate, but these results have been forwarded to Countryfile nevertheless so that they have them in advance of the episode being broadcast. The results from these two tests found nothing above the limit of detection achievable by the UKAS accredited laboratory that we used to perform the analysis. Results of this testing are also below. Countryfile have also now received a copy of the report from the EA, although again it is unfortunate that this was not able to be published prior to filming.

We have also been monitoring our watercress farm outflows to see what effect our farming practices are having on biodiversity, and are continuing with this each year. The results of these studies are very positive and demonstrate what a huge diversity of macroinvertebrates can be found directly downstream of the discharge from our watercress beds. For further information please click here to review kick tests at our discharge points carried out by an independent professional. More results are expected this month (June 2019) from samples taken in May 2019, and these will be posted on our website as soon as they are available.

 
 

What are the next steps?

 
 

In the main, this report is good news as it shows that there is no evidence of environmental damage to the River Itchen SSSI or SAC. However it does demonstrate that more work is going to be needed to address the issues of suspended solids in Alresford Pond and pesticide residues and their effect on the Alresford Pond SSSI.

The most urgent next step is to vary the discharge permit used by Bakkavor to include a condition for monitoring the pesticides that might be present in the water being discharged by Bakkavor. This process will be instigated in the next few weeks. Further to this:

  1. We need to understand more about the chemicals that have been found and understand more about their sources and if they are at a level that could cause damage to the environment.

  2. It might be possible to remove the pesticides at the point of discharge (an end of pipe solution) and it may also be necessary to remove them from the production process further up the chain.

Industry wide challenges

Once this is all resolved it is worth remembering that the pesticide issue does not concern just this one salad washing factory. There are many washers and packers of fresh fruit, vegetables and salads all over the country who potentially have the same problem.  Even if the water is being treated by a water company prior to discharge, it is very unlikely that they will be able to remove pesticide residues from the water given the very low levels that are present.  Any permit variations that are required may therefore have a significant impact on a much wider industry.

EDR report 5/6/19

Drayton borehole pesticide residue test results 2018

Drayton borehole pesticide residue test results 2019

Factory and watercress production combined discharge results 15-5-19

Factory and watercress production combined discharge results 17-5-19