An alliance of environmental groups concerned over pollution of the River Wye took their message to Tesco head office last week, appearing both inside and outside the company’s Annual General Meeting in Welwyn Garden City.

Led by Marches Climate Action (MCA) supported by Save The Wye, Friends of the Upper Wye and Friends of the Lower Wye, among others, the campaign to hold Tesco responsible for damage to the River Wye has been running outside the Hereford store since the start of the year and today’s action steps this up another notch, from local to national.

Outside, the centrepiece of today’s protest was a handmade ‘cloak’ or ‘mantle’ representing hundreds of signed paper messages collected by MCA from Hereford shoppers calling on the company to ‘live up to its environmental promises’. Campaigners called on Tesco senior management to come outside and meet them, so as to formally accept this ‘Mantle of Responsibility’.

Inside, group members and others asked pointed questions regarding Tesco’s role in damage to the River Wye. Some focused on Tesco’s contract with Avara, the Hereford-based poultry processor which is half owned by US multinational Cargill. Avara in recent months has accepted some responsibility for serious damage to the River Wye through phosphate runoff from the many Intensive Poultry Units (IPUs) across the Wye Catchment, contracted to Avara. IPUs in the catchment now contain an estimated 20 million birds at any one time producing phosphate-rich faeces which directly or indirectly end up in the river causing notable decline.

In 2019 Tesco made Avara principal supplier of poultry products for its Willow brand, and it is this connection which campaigners say breaks the ‘promises’ made in Tesco’s own environmental and supplier policies, where the company undertakes to ensure that pollutants do not impact on waterways and “Not to knowingly cause, or risk causing, irreparable ecosystem damage.” 

There is wide agreement across all kinds of organisations associated with the river including individuals such as MPs, that damage to the Wye ecosystem has already been very serious and risks becoming irreparable. At the end of last month, Natural England officially downgraded the River Wye’s status to being in an unfavourable and declining condition.

“Tesco is all smoke and mirrors” said Vey Straker dressed as Lady Wye, wearing the ‘Mantle of Responsibility’. “After 6 months we’re still awaiting a proper response from the company, we just want Tesco to take responsibility, live up to its promises and clean up its supply chain by ending its contract with Avara and thus with Cargill, a company deeply implicated in almost-irreparable environmental harm both here, in South America, and even in the USA.” 

MCA points to recent reports linking Cargill with deforestation of the Amazon and Cerrado regions, from where it imports soya into the UK as an essential component in the chicken feed used by Avara. Twice in the last year, to expose what they term “a toxic supply-chain” protestors have blockaded the Avara/Cargill feed mill near Hereford using lock-ons. 

MCA has also in recent months staged street-theatre performances – in Hereford and also outside the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs in Westminster – illustrating the connections and impacts of Cargill’s operations: in South America, in Herefordshire/Powys, and also in the Illinois River catchment.

Earlier this year a court found Cargill and others guilty of causing harm to the Illinois River through phosphates from its intensive poultry operations there, and court documents revealed the company had been aware since the 1980s that their operations could have such impacts.

“We need a food system that is sustainable and doesn’t cost the earth” said Tara Heineman a spokesperson for MCA. “There is no such thing as ‘cheap chicken’. If Cargill, Avara and Tesco all had to pay the true cost of producing this chicken including the costs of the environmental damage and harm to the tourist industry, which they presently disregard, chicken would have to be a lot more expensive. This can’t go on, and as a first step Tesco must disengage from AvaraCargill and find a more responsible, less damaging source of supply.”

For more information about the campaign see the MCA website