Watercress: good for you - bad for the environment?
The Secretary of State for the Environment, Elliott Morley, will deliver a direction on a local planning matter on Wednesday 3 November that could have far-reaching consequences for the way in which the UK
prepares to meet the EU's Water Framework Directive.November test case raises profound implications for the health of all of Britain's rivers
Castigated in previous reports for the poor quality of the waters in our rivers, the Secretary has already committed millions for clean-up programmes to commence. However, the outcome of a planning
application by Vitacress, the watercress company, to expand its operations in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that includes the pristine chalk river, the Bourne Rivulet, in Hampshire will create a precedence with national implications and has the potential to negate
the recently launched efforts to protect and restore chalk rivers.
A planning application granted to Vitacress in April for its proposed expansion has already been overturned through a judicial review instigated by a local resident, Peter Evans, supported by the Salmon & Trout Association (S&TA). Because the council,Basingstoke and Deane, conceded that it had not followed the Environmental Impact Assessment procedures (EIA), a High Court order quashed the expansion permission.
However, Vitacress's application still stands, and the company intends to proceed with it to meet its plans to expand by 60% over the next five years.
And why shouldn't it? Watercress has been grown commercially in the area since the early 1900s - Vitacress itself has been there since the
mid-1960s and is now a major local employer with a #60m+ turnover. Watercress is a known "alpha-plus" food, high in vitamin C and anti-oxidants that some health experts believe help prevent cancer.
However, that is only one side of the coin. As Peter Evans maintains, "This is not a cottage industry. It is intensive farming on a large scale that has a huge environmental impact on the surrounding area". The company imports most of its product from abroad - up to 95% in winter. Its washing processes not only require large quantities of water - they can abstract up to a massive 32 megalitres a day from the boreholes on site - but also deposit foreign matter, especially silt
and pesticide residue, directly into the river system."
Environment Agency research shows that there is a significant decline in river invertebrates - essential ingredients in the aquatic food chain - in the Bourne outlet channel used by Vitacress to dispose of
this waste. As a result, very few fish are found there. Even 2.9 km downstream of the effluent discharge there are 90% fewer freshwater shrimp. Evans continues, "Neither English Nature nor the EA know what
is causing this but as invertebrates and fish are plentiful above the Vitacress factory effluent discharge, but not below, at the very least the Precautionary Principle - the first premise of the EIA - should be invoked."
Additionally, the water abstraction required to maintain the Vitacress washing processes is adversely effecting water levels throughout the region, prematurely draining water meadows, ponds and streams.
"The major problems facing all British rivers - especially diffuse pollution and excessive abstraction - are encapsulated in this situation," Paul Knight, S&TA Director, asserts. "Defra's present responsibilities under the Water Framework Directive and Catchment
Sensitive Farming (diffuse pollution) are central to this issue."
And what of the Environment Agency, the body whose sole purpose is to. well, protect the environment? The local EA office recognises that something is causing a "significant impact" and "significant deterioration", but currently maintains that a water resources issue
cannot be taken into account in a planning matter - a stance that both Evans and the S&TA regard with astonishment, especially as the national EA Fisheries Department is attempting to protect pristine brown trout population, such as that contained within the Bourne
Rivulet, through delivery of its Trout & Grayling Strategy.
"We believe the threats to the Bourne Rivulet from growing watercress intensively, using huge quantities of water to clean local and imported plants, potentially containing pesticide and other residues that are then discharged into the Bourne, is a matter of the utmost
concern for the EA in their statutory duty to protect the
environment," Paul Knight declares. "It is absolutely essential that on 3 November the Secretary of State directs that an independent Environmental Impact Assessment be required before Vitacress is granted permission to expand. We strongly believe that decisions taken locally on this issue will have national implications for delivery of future EA and Defra environmental strategies."
The EA meanwhile still maintains that the residues can be controlled by discharge consents, separate from planning, and while it accepts Vitacress's assurance of keeping residues of silt, and any other substance, on site are sufficient protection, it acknowledges it still does not know what is causing the "significant impact" on Hampshire's Bourne Rivulet.