Lough Neagh algae: ‘Government policy played clear role in Lough Neagh crisis’ says Friends of the Earth

Toxic blue-green algae on the slipway of Ballyronan marina on Lough Neagh in September 2023. Photo: PAToxic blue-green algae on the slipway of Ballyronan marina on Lough Neagh in September 2023. Photo: PA
Toxic blue-green algae on the slipway of Ballyronan marina on Lough Neagh in September 2023. Photo: PA
A leading environmental group says that government policy has played a clear role in the pollution crisis in Lough Neagh.

James Orr, Director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, was speaking after the Stormont Executive declined to back a plan from Agriculture Minister Andrew Muir last week to rescue the Lough.

The lough provides 40% of Northern Ireland's drinking water, however excessive growth of highly toxic algae across the lough made headlines last summer.

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Experts say this is linked to excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the water from fertilisers as well as the spread of the invasive zebra mussel, which clears the water and encourages the algae to photosynthesise.

Climate warming has also been cited as a factor.

Agriculture Minister Andrew Muir brought a report with 30 recommendations to the executive on Thursday – however it was not accepted by the ministers.

Significant investment would be needed to implement his plan and some recommendations require cooperation from other departments – hence the need for executive backing.

Mr Orr says that figures released from DAERA in recent weeks show that two-thirds of phosphorus in Lough Neagh has come from agricultural animal waste and one third from human waste.

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Two thirds of the human waste is coming from NI Water Sewage works and one third from septic tanks, of which there are well over 10,000 around Lough Neagh, he says.

However, the surge in animal waste is not primarily coming from family farms, he says, but rather from major factory farm businesses which he says have been created deliberately by government policy.

"DAERA has recently released its environmental statistics report. It said that there's been a 55% increase in phosphorus since 2012 to 2023.

"There has always been a level of phosphorus from farms. But what we've seen since the Going for Growth Strategy was introduced in around 2012, is a huge spike in phosphorus levels. And that has corresponded with a huge increase in the numbers of factory farms in Northern Ireland."

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He said DAERA is still effectively running the same policy under different names.

"But it's effectively the same idea. What we have been arguing is that this is an anti-farming policy because it's about supporting the development of large corporate agribusiness. These are not family farms. This is not even farming. This is global corporate agribusiness."

Over the past ten years he says that "hundreds of millions" of taxpayers pounds has been poured into such businesses through periodic direct and indirect subsidies, but that such businesses "come and go".

"The policy has been to invite them into Northern Ireland, through lax planning laws, and secondly, through direct or indirect subsidies."

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Putting a pause on planning permission for "factory farms" would really help Lough Neagh recover, he says.

And he believes dramatic improvements can be made before even having to source any extra funding.

"What we would love to see is that the existing money [being given to factory farms] being redirected to supporting environmental improvements on real real family farms instead."

"Obviously the problem is that it's our own government that's been responsible, or at least partly responsible, for what's happened [with phosphorus]. There's no doubt in our mind that that's a major contributing factor although it's not the only factor.

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"We also know that sewage plants have been chronically underfunded for years and are at breaking point."

"But there's a clear causation between government policy [and pollution]. It has directly contributed to the poisoning of Lough Neagh."

A DAERA spokesperson issued the following statement in response:

"On 14 May 2024, the Minister announced that DAERA’s focus is to use science and evidence to drive enhanced programmes which will foster an environmentally sustainable agri-food industry. These include the new Farm Support and Development Programme, which will transition us to a more sustainable farming sector, and a new Environmental Improvement Plan for Northern Ireland, which is currently being considered by the NI Executive.

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“DAERA’s focus in the years ahead is policies, programmes, schemes and measures that deliver sustainable productivity and improved resilience in a way that will reduce emissions, improve our natural and marine environment and ensure food security and high standards of disease control, old policies are being replaced by newer, evidence-based approaches.

“The Minister also outlined his plans to address ammonia and phosphorus-related issues by incentivising and enabling actions that further protect the environment. An environmentally sustainable agri-food industry will also help to secure the recovery of Lough Neagh and improve water quality across Northern Ireland.”

They said that Minister Muir has previously stated that “over the past couple of decades, we have not got the balance right between growing our economy whilst safeguarding our natural environment. Lough Neagh is a manifestation of that and the undeniable impact of climate change means that there are no quick fixes. It is a complex, multi-factorial issue which will take decades to solve”..

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