Anyone who has been paying attention for the last couple of decades knows about the harm being done to the environment by fossil fuels. They are the obvious, looming bad guys when it comes to air pollution and things like the Ultra Low Emission Zone in London (and the same proposed in Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and many more) and the 1.7 million UK cyclists are all responses to this. But there is another culprit that seems to have flown under the radar, and that is ammonia.
Ammonia is a smelly gas that, in large amounts, can be poisonous to humans and most commonly comes from animal manure and nitrogen fertilisers. When used on crops, it sometimes runs off into rivers and streams, causing some plants to overgrow and others to die, all of which disrupts natural ecosystems.
According to The Guardian, “Ammonia and nitrogen pollution, mostly from farms, is harming more than 60% of the UK’s land area and hitting the most sensitive habitats for plants and wildlife hardest, a government report has found, despite there being no clear plans to monitor or reduce its impact.” The same study has also found that over 85% of England (and 88% of Northern Ireland) is subject to ammonia concentrations above the critical level.
So, what does this mean? Well, the critical level is set to protect mosses, lichens, liverworts and similar plants, all of which are “keystone species that are vital to ecosystems.” Wildlife depend on them for food, including pollinating insects, and the ammonia is also killing off fungi that helps trees grow.
The cause for alarm is real, with Simon Bareham, principal adviser on air quality and biodiversity at the Welsh environment agency, Natural Resources Wales, warning: “If we don’t do something we risk losing some of these internationally important [ecological] communities that we have hung onto since the last ice age. In the short term, this poses one of the biggest threats to biodiversity that I’ve come across in my career of over 30 years.”
One of the most obvious reasons that this cause hasn’t been taken up with the same level of evangelism as cycling or, indeed, recycling is because individual action feels like far less of a factor. It is the government who needs to act if things are going to change; experts and activists are already calling for beef and dairy farms to be monitored, as currently they are being given free reign. Many believe that sustainable practices being introduced into the UK’s farming and food systems is the only real way to bring air pollution down.
Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green Party MP, has called for “less but better meat and dairy production, which would not only improve air quality but also benefit the environment, lead to better public health and improve animal protection.” So, although it may not seem quite so evident as swapping your car for a bike, there are ways in which we as individuals can use our power as consumers to instigate change. Vegan or vegetarian life isn’t for everyone but making sure your meat comes from non-factory farms or maybe adopting a flexitarian diet are all ways to vote with your wallet.
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