An £800 million green energy scheme has been hijacked by big business to fuel a huge expansion of intensive farming—with ordinary households across the UK footing the bill, an investigation by SourceMaterial reveals.
Hundreds of pig and poultry mega-farms are springing up across Northern Ireland in a building boom driven by subsidies for biogas generators that turn animal waste to renewable energy.
Touted as a green technology, biogas is giving the meat industry an outlet for hundreds of thousands of tonnes of ammonia-laden manure, helping it skirt limits on harmful emissions.
Last year, Northern Ireland’s government collapsed amid a row about another energy subsidy, the Renewable Heat Incentive or RHI, which funded wood-fired boilers so generously some farmers heated empty sheds to profit.
‘Cash for Ash’, as the scandal became known, revealed the influence on government of meat processing giants like Moy Park—Northern Ireland’s biggest employer and a supplier of chicken to Tesco, Waitrose, Nando’s and KFC.
Our investigation shows Moy Park lobbied just as effectively for biogas, as politicians and pliant officials allowed the agri-food industry to dictate policy.
Alongside Moy Park and its peers, London investment funds are cashing in on the subsidy bonanza. And in another echo of RHI, so, apparently, are scammers: our reporting, also featured in a BBC File on 4 documentary, found tens of millions of pounds in subsidy claims for biogas plants that don’t exist.
Intensive farming is already controversial because of its treatment of animals. But the massive growth in chicken and pig numbers means an equally large increase in manure—more than Northern Ireland can handle.
After passing through biogas digesters, the waste is spread on fields as fertiliser. Ammonia, which damages biodiversity and human health, is funnelled back into the ecosystem. Northern Ireland is home to less than three per cent of the population but now accounts for 12 per cent of UK ammonia emissions. Almost all of its protected wildlife sites are contaminated.
“We’re facing this perfect storm,” says James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland. “There’s a point at which you have to declare a national emergency.”
Quite literally, a poo crisis.
The mega-farm lobby
At least since the first century AD, when the Ulster folk hero Cuchulain fought off the armies of Queen Maeve of Connacht over a prize brown bull, Northern Ireland’s economy has centred on cattle.
But that has started to change, with the devolved government throwing its weight behind intensive pig and poultry farming on a vast scale.
In 2012, the government set up the Agri-Food Strategy Board, an industry committee formed to create a “strategic action plan” for farming and chaired by Tony O’Neill, a senior director at Moy Park.
It quickly became clear who was calling the shots.
“We are behind the officials looking at what they are doing in response to our asks,” O’Neill told a Stormont committee in 2014, soon after he left Moy Park for Dunbia, a supplier of beef, pork and lamb to Sainsbury’s and Asda. “We will be suitably demanding and critical if they are not doing exactly what we ask them to do.”
O’Neill has made no secret of his aim to replace Northern Ireland’s traditional agriculture with industrial farming, once controversially suggesting the province needs just 6,000 intensive farmers to produce food. The remaining 20,000 farmers could look after the countryside, he said, sparking an angry response from the Ulster Farmers' Union.
While still at Moy Park, O’Neill oversaw publication of the Agri-Food Strategy Board’s ‘Going for Growth’ plan, an ambitious scheme to increase the intensive farming industry’s sales by 60 per cent to £7 billion by 2020.
That coincided neatly with Moy Park’s own ‘Plan to Grow’ strategy to build 400 extra poultry sheds, each holding as many as 37,000 birds.
“At Moy Park we are committed to developing our business sustainably and responsibly,” the company told SourceMaterial. “We take our role in this very seriously, working collaboratively with our farming partners to ensure best environmental practice.”
Food production is central to Northern Ireland’s economy (it accounts for 4.4 per cent of jobs overall). But some argue that intensive farming isn’t the only way for the industry to grow.
“What the Northern Irish government should be doing is investing in small farms, not as something old-fashioned and traditional to be hung on to but as a way of sustaining their soils and land,” says Charlie Clutterbuck, an expert on sustainable agriculture. “That’s what’s going to work in the long term, not some short-term mega-farm fix.”
Instead, the Going for Growth mega-farm plan was adopted wholesale by government, with no environmental impact assessment to test the consequences of injecting thousands of tons of animal droppings into Northern Ireland’s already damaged ecosystem.
In order to hit Growing for Growth’s ambitious targets, the industry needed to get around the European Union’s Nitrates Directive, introduced to limit the spread of compounds like ammonia.
“We have plans to undertake a multi-million-pound investment programme across our factories and poultry farms,” said O’Neill in 2009, when he was a chief executive of O’Kane Poultry, shortly before it was swallowed by Moy Park in a poultry mega-merger. “However, this investment is very much dependent on the industry’s ability to meet existing and emerging EU legislation.”
And as head of the Agri-food Strategy Board formulating government policy, O’Neill—who did not respond to emailed questions—had the ideal platform to lobby for the policies Moy Park and its peers needed.
“Government must fast track a solution for poultry waste into energy, recognising the environmental benefits and remove a key uncertainty over the growth of the agri-food industry in Northern Ireland,” O’Neill’s Going for Growth strategy said.
That solution was biogas.
Biogas hadn’t always been part of the plan. Moy Park originally persuaded the government to back a huge incinerator with a £15 million loan, documents suggest. But the project, Rose Energy, stalled in 2012 on objections from residents near the proposed site on the banks of Lough Neagh.
It was then that Moy Park turned to anaerobic digestion—the process that makes biogas from plant and animal waste.
“After the Rose Energy option was refused planning permission, the industry had to accept anaerobic digestion as the only practical, large-scale solution at the time and we supported it as such,” a company spokeswoman said.
In 2013, the government created “a dedicated team of officials” to help Moy Park expand and “meet its EU obligations under the nitrates directive”.
Between September 2014 and April 2017 Moy Park held 14 meetings with agriculture department officials in which anaerobic digestion was discussed, documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests show.
And in 2015, as the rest of the UK was winding down support for biogas, O’Neill’s Agri-Food Strategy Board successfully lobbied to lock subsidies at the top level. By the following year they were four times higher than anywhere else in the UK.
Documents obtained by SourceMaterial show a policy billed as support for green energy was designed with the poultry industry specifically in mind. The subsidy is “an indication that Government is highly supportive of sustainable solutions for poultry litter”, according to speaking notes prepared for the head of the Northern Ireland government agriculture department.
When tougher environmental policies were mooted, Moy Park pushed back, warning that plans to mitigate the ammonia crisis “would be unacceptable, as current investment within the Going for Growth strategy could be brought into question”, other unpublished documents show.
“The poultry industry is highly regulated and we operate to exacting welfare, bio-security and environmental standards,” Moy Park said. “Our independent farming partners are carefully selected for their stockmanship, animal husbandry and business skills required to meet these standards.”
Most importantly for Moy Park, in November 2015 the company struck a deal with Northern Ireland’s agriculture department that licensed Moy Park’s contracted farmers to produce 134,000 tonnes of chicken litter a year, with the majority going to anaerobic digesters.
And because Moy Park’s waste was being used for biogas, the new poultry farms proliferating across the country were able to bypass detailed scrutiny of their impact on sensitive habitats.
At the same time, ministers approved a £12 million loan scheme “supporting the NI poultry industry in developing sustainable treatment solutions to comply with the Nitrates and Water Framework Directives”.
The money went to build two giant biogas digesters, one especially designed to deal with Moy Park’s poultry waste.
So vital were they to Moy Park that one document obtained by SourceMaterial shows civil servants examining a suggestion the digesters should be classified “strategic assets” and fully funded by the government along a model used for the army’s Challenger tank.
“The analogy did not originate with Moy Park,” the company said.
The Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the Department for the Economy did not respond to detailed questions from SourceMaterial.
In throwing its weight behind biogas, the government chose to ignore a major problem with the technology.
What comes out of anaerobic digesters is a sludge called digestate. Spread on fields as fertiliser, it contains just as much ammonia as the feedstock that went in.
Back in 2008, when it was still pushing its incinerator scheme, Moy Park admitted as much.
Poultry litter “does not lend itself well to the process of anaerobic digestion”, the company and its industry peers said jointly. “This technology does not remove the nitrates and phosphates which is essential to comply with the EU Nitrates and Phosphates Directives.”
The government agreed.
Anaerobic digestion “does not address the fundamental issue of excess nutrients in the manure, as it requires land spreading of the digestate,” the agriculture and environment department said in a January 2012 report.
Yet despite the obvious drawbacks, the government and Moy Park pressed ahead.
Without the technology, disposing of poultry waste would have been eye-wateringly expensive, costing up to £90 a tonne, according to an industry and government estimate. Now Moy Park collects the waste from its contracted farmers and sells it to the digester operator.
Moy Park declined to disclose the price to SourceMaterial, saying the information was “commercially sensitive.”
Moy Park’s own contracted farmers are just as much in the dark.
“They’re being extremely secretive about it,” said one, speaking on condition of anonymity because the company has imposed restrictions on talking to the press in the wake of the RHI scandal. “They won’t even tell us.”
Moy Park’s lobbying helped unlock subsidy payments for biogas set to hit £830 million, according to SourceMaterial calculations checked by an industry analyst—all funded by extra charges to household energy bills across the UK.
News of easy money travels fast and it didn’t take long for London fund managers to cotton on.
In the past two years, half of new biogas plants in the UK were in Northern Ireland. But in the scramble to exploit the windfall, not everyone has profited.
Raymond Pollock wishes he had never heard the word biogas.
In 2011, his small organic dairy farm was beset by low milk prices and mounting debt and he faced losing the land his family had farmed since the 1940s in Bready, on the banks of the River Foyle in County Londonderry.
So when Assured Energy, one of a host of London investors lured by the biogas boom, offered to build him an anaerobic digester, he jumped at the chance.
The 500kW biogas plant would net £800,000 a year in subsidy payments. Assured Energy would put up the £2.3 million construction costs and pay him £45,000 in operator fees. They would also buy silage from his fields to feed the plant, and harvest the subsidy payments themselves.
Assured Energy, which is backed by London fund manager Gravis Capital Partners, even said they would pay off Pollock’s £675,000 bank debt. They would save the farm.
It seemed too good to be true—and it was.
“We were sold a pup,” says Pollock, who six years on spends his free time, often late into the night, on a protracted battle to get Assured Energy off his land.
‘Risk of injury or death’
Pollock’s relationship with Assured Energy soured almost from the start.
Original planning documents show nearly all the silage to feed the biogas digester was supposed to come from his farm. But a few days before signing the final contract, Assured Energy—whose directors were in line for a £57,500 payout for signing the contract—suddenly doubled the amount of silage feedstock to more than Pollock could provide or safely store, according to documents.
Pollock said the excess silage and shoddy workmanship by Assured Energy’s contractors led to a serious pollution incident and only luck prevented contamination of the nearby River Foyle. And as the landowner, he was liable.
“Assured Energy has not been responsible for any pollution incident at Thornyhill,” a company spokesman told SourceMaterial in an email. “The extent to which the landlord was causing pollution matters is the subject of an ongoing legal dispute and we cannot comment further.”
Ambrose McCloskey, a chartered engineer commissioned by Pollock, warned in a report that Assured Energy’s overloading of underground tanks by driving heavy vehicles over them would lead to “a high likelihood of a collapse”, with “risk of injury or death”.
When Pollock withdrew from the contract, Assured Energy sued him for loss of earnings because of his failure to operate the plant at full capacity (the lawsuit is still open). Meanwhile, the digester on his farm isn’t earning him a penny. Assured Energy is trucking feedstock to the site—which is an industrial operation rather than the farm-scale sustainable project the company claimed, Pollock says.
To make ends meet, he and his wife have taken extra jobs away from the farm, limiting the time they can spend caring for their 19-year-old autistic son.
“The technology is sound and done properly it would be good,” Pollock said. “But you are dealing with vultures.”
Assured Energy said it has “invested significantly” in the development of biogas plants in Northern Ireland and “acted at all times” within regulatory requirements”.
Gravis said it is “simply an adviser” and “arm’s-length commercial lender” to Assured Energy. “Whilst we are aware that Assured Energy is in dispute in relation to the sites you mention, we
would caution against drawing any conclusions on these matters ... until the outcome of this process is known,” a representative of the fund manager said.
Jonathan Moore, another Limavady resident, is also battling Assured Energy, which with capital from Gravis has built 10 biogas generators in Northern Ireland. Two Assured Energy digester tanks, each six metres high and 24 metres across, stand less than 50 metres from his house, emitting a steady whine and a powerful odour as mixers churn the feedstock.
As with the Pollocks, planning permission was for a sustainable, farm-scale operation but Assured Energy appears to have built something far larger.
The discrepancy between the original proposal and what was eventually built led a senior council official to conclude in July 2017 that “this site is not appropriate for this scale of development".
“What they then built compared to the original description was completely different. It’s an industrial-scale system,” Moore said. The digester, which has not been granted a waste management licence, gives off a “vinegary smell” so strong that his family and neighbours can no longer hang washing outside, he said.
His eyes and throat become irritated when the plant is running. Environmental officials measured high levels of ammonia, as well as dangerous levels nitrogen dioxide and hydrogen sulphide, on his property, he says.
The council has ordered the removal of the site and Assured Energy is appealing the decision.
“It has completely floored that value of my home,” Moore said. “Who would want to live next to a centralised anaerobic digester?”
The company said: “Assured Energy has a strong working relationship across Northern Ireland with the farmers, suppliers and regulatory departments that it relies upon in order to provide sustainable green energy, deliver environmental benefits and support the rural economy”.
Biogas digesters don’t have to be a bad thing and can help make farms more sustainable, says Keith Finegan, senior scientific officer at Northern Ireland’s environment agency, which merged with the agriculture department in 2015.
“The right way to do it is obviously feed the grass to the cattle, collect the slurry and make renewable energy,” Finegan said in an interview.
But Northern Ireland’s subsidy offers the biggest incentives for 500kW digesters, far too big for Northern Ireland’s typical small cattle farms to supply with home-grown feedstock, prompting the Ulster Farmers’ Union to warn that the subsidy regime unfairly favours mega-farms “to the detriment of those involved in more traditional farming practices”.
Plants of the type installed by Assured Energy “are actually commercial enterprises as opposed to farm businesses”, the UFU told a government consultation in 2015.
“Tariffs were stacked in favour of largest installations,” UFU Senior Policy Officer Chris Osborne told a conference in October 2017. “From the outset, the UFU felt that small scale should have been closer to 30kW and below.”
It’s these differences in the tariffs that appear to have been exploited by subsidy cheats earning tens of millions of pounds in fake claims.
JMW Farms is one of the UK’s biggest pig breeders. With farms on both sides of the Irish Sea and annual sales of nearly £40 million, it supplies pork to clients including Sainsbury’s. At any time JMW stocks around 140,000 pigs, generating vast quantities of manure—ideal for biogas.
Priding itself on its “sophisticated and advanced” methods—in 2016 it was shortlisted for an entrepreneurship award—JMW was among the first Northern Irish farmers to adopt anaerobic digestion technology. Planning records show it applied to build its first biogas plant in 2009.
JMW is apparently equally entrepreneurial when it comes to exploiting government subsidies. SourceMaterial’s investigation found the company’s owners are set to earn more than £10 million over the 20-year lifetime of the subsidy—for a biogas plant that doesn’t exist.
By 2015, JMW had more waste than its single 500kW digester could process. (As well as taking manure from its own farms, in 2013 it began arranging to process waste from Moy Park, documents obtained by SourceMaterial through Freedom of Information requests show.)
JMW’s problem was that its plans to increase the plant’s capacity by adding an extra generator would that would shift it into a lower subsidy band.
So JMW’s owners found a workaround.
They set up a second company, Greencircle Renewables. By 2017, both companies, JMW and Greencircle, were claiming subsidies at the highest rate—apparently for two separate 500kW biogas digesters.
But planning documents suggest Greencircle is on course to generate millions in subsidies from a phantom plant in what appears to be a contravention of rules laid down by Ofgem, the electricity regulator, to prevent false claims.
There is only one biogas plant—the large one on JMW’s farm. The address given by Greencircle as its corporate headquarters has no building on it. It is a back entrance to JMW’s fields.
Greencircle “applied for support under the Northern Irish Renewable Obligation Scheme in accordance with Ofgem’s guidelines”, a solicitor for both companies said in response to questions from SourceMaterial and the BBC, without commenting further.
JMW isn’t alone.
Gilfresh Produce, which sells vegetables to supermarkets including Asda, appears to be profiting from a similar ploy that could earn its owners £10 million over the 20-year subsidy period.
Gilfresh is a family business controlled by Thomas Gilpin. Another company at the same address, Ballytyrone Nurseries, is owned by his son, Andrew, and daughter Helen. Both entities are claiming separate subsidy payments—but planning documents show there is only one biogas digester at the site.
Gilfresh has “at all times adhered to the guidelines issued by Ofgem”, the company said through its solicitor in response to questions from SourceMaterial and the BBC.
Just five miles down the road, Hunniford Energy submitted its application to build a biogas plant on the same day as Gilfresh in 2016. Its owners, the Hunniford family, also set up Anakeera Energy, registered a few doors down on the same street.
Hunniford and Anakeera are both running generators connected to a single biogas plant on the same site, documents show, earning an extra £55,000 a month—around £13 million over the lifetime of the subsidy.
All in all, SourceMaterial identified seven plants apparently gaming the system, over-claiming subsidies by a total of £38 million.
Hunniford Energy did not respond to calls and emails.
Moy Park link
JMW, Gilfresh and Hunniford all made arrangements to take waste from Moy Park, documents show.
“Some factory sludge material is processed by Hunniford Energy. Moy Park pays Hunniford for this service,” a Moy Park spokeswoman said in response to questions. Litter arrangements with the other plants are “independent of Moy Park”, she said.
And five of the phantom plants we identified are linked to Action Renewables, a government-backed adviser that helps subsidy claimants get accreditation with Ofgem.
There is no evidence to suggest involvement by Moy Park and Action Renewables in any wrongdoing or potentially misleading subsidy claims. Moy Park told SourceMaterial it was “surprised by the allegations” and “would expect the regulator to pursue this to the full extent of their powers”.
Action Renewables said: “While it would be inappropriate to comment on individual cases, in general, our role is to take the information supplied by applicants and ensure that the format and content of their submission corresponds with Ofgem’s application process. We are content that in submitting applications for our clients we have complied with that process.”
SourceMaterial and the BBC asked Ofgem what it was doing to guard against potentially dishonest claims.
“We are unable to comment on individual cases but we take allegations of this nature very seriously,” an Ofgem spokesperson said. “Any allegation of fraud is referred to our counter fraud team.”
But in replying to our questions, Ofgem copied in internal remarks suggesting that when it receives an application for biogas subsidies, its initial controls go no further than checking whether two applicants share a postcode.
Ofgem is already under fire for its role in another green energy scandal, RHI, after failing to pass on to the Northern Ireland government numerous warnings the £1.2 billion wood-pellet-to-energy subsidy scheme was being abused.
In early 2017, the opposition Sinn Fein left the power-sharing administration after the first minister, DUP leader Arlene Foster, refused to resign over the scandal, triggering a government collapse.
Action Renewables, which earned nearly £250,000 advising RHI claimants, is under investigation by the Charity Commission after it neglected to warn Stormont officials about serious flaws in the scheme.
It told clients it was "not wrong" boost payments by running boilers for longer than necessary. And in a parallel with the biogas scheme, Action Renewables also advised farmers to maximise subsidies by installing two smaller boilers rather than one larger one.
Action Renewables’ managing director told the RHI inquiry the charity could have been accused of misadvising its clients had it not helped them get the best rate.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of RHI was Moy Park, which pressured its hundreds of contracted farmers to join the flawed initiative. The subsequent judicial inquiry revealed close ties between the company and government: even after RHI’s failings became public knowledge, Moy Park successfully lobbied for the scheme to be kept long enough for its contracted farmers to benefit.
Evidence reviewed by the inquiry included an internal company email with a cartoon of a Moy Park poultry house powered by a range of renewable energy sources. In front of it was a chicken holding a sack labelled “swag”.
The spate of biogas-fuelled pig and poultry farms is sending Northern Ireland’s already high ammonia emissions even higher.
Pure ammonia is only harmful to humans at high concentrations. But in the air it can react with other pollutants to form tiny particles, known as PM2.5, that can be extremely dangerous when inhaled. More than half of PM2.5 emissions in Europe are from agriculture and the particles may have caused thousands of premature deaths in Britain in a single year, according to an EU study.
Ammonia can also wreak havoc with plants or wildlife, though at first its effects can be hard to spot. To the untrained eye, polluted landscapes may even look healthier, as the fertilising effect of nitrates makes them appear unnaturally lush.
“We’re living in a nitrogen-soaked environment,” says Catherine Bertrand, head of conservation at Butterfly Conservation Northern Ireland, a charity. “There’s a diffuse pollution that comes through our air, comes through our groundwater, and everything is gradually being enriched.”
While the landscape my look greener, ammonia pollution helps a small number of nitrate-loving species flourish at the expense of the others, Bertrand says. Grass, nettles and brambles, which thrive on extra nitrates, begin to dominate, squeezing out more delicate plants and the animals that feed on them.
One example is the marsh fritillary, a rare, colourful butterfly once common in Northern Ireland and now found in a few isolated spots. These protected insects feed on devil’s bit scabious, a plant highly sensitive to ammonia damage. Where it dies, butterflies die too.
Ammonia is already driving out species and changing the environment, says James Rainey, an ecologist.
In ancient woodland in County Londonderry, he points out an area of birch bark just a few inches square but filigreed with a patchwork of different lichens, each with its unique role in the food chain.
But on the edge of the same wood, just a few metres from two Moy Park poultry sheds, the effects of ammonia are clear. The birch bark is almost bare, covered only in a thin green slime. Where more than half a dozen species were thriving, just one remains.
“These things are really the canary in the coal mine,” says Rainey. “Whenever they start to disappear, that’s when you know that that it’s starting to become a problem and that you might start to have impact on your ground flora as well—bluebells being replaced by nettles.”
Among the sites most at risk from the ammonia crisis are the Northern Ireland’s peat bogs, home to delicate ecosystems protected by law and an international agreement.
But at Ballynahone Bog in County Londonderry, new industrial chicken sheds have been built less than a hundred metres from the site’s boundary. Peat bogs are acidic, which makes them highly vulnerable to damage from alkaline ammonia, said Friends of the Earth’s James Orr
during a June 2018 visit. Ballynahone is classified a protected habitat on multiple counts under EU rules and international conventions.
“These are habitats very rare not just in Northern Ireland but the whole of Europe so it’s of international importance,” Orr said. “And these are factory farms, not small-scale affairs—these are highly industrialised units out of what we would call the Moy Park juggernaut.”
SourceMaterial’s investigation found that the chicken sheds at the edge of Ballynahone bog, part of a Moy Park-contracted farm, breached their planning conditions. The farm was supposed to monitor ammonia emissions and file them to the Northern Ireland Environment Agency in its first year. If emissions rose above levels set in planning application, the farm was to close until a solution was found. The environmental regulator confirmed in a Freedom of Information request that it held no such report.
“It is our understanding the farmer has fulfilled his obligations,” Moy Park told SourceMaterial. The farmer declined to comment.
A separate report on ammonia emissions on the bog, a special protection area and a site of special scientific interest under European law, shows that concentrations have risen sharply in recent years. “It’s in pretty bad state,” says Mark Sutton, an ammonia expert at the University of Edinburgh who has monitored the site. “Somebody asked me to give it a score on a scale of nought to ten, nought being dead. I gave it a four."
“It’s very hard to find a site as protected as this,” says Orr. “We have plenty of laws, it’s just that they’re not implemented.”
In Newtownabbey, on hills overlooking Belfast Lough, construction of one of the U.K.’s biggest pig farms is underway.
The plans have provoked a backlash, with local residents raising concerns about odour, ammonia pollution and animal welfare.
Already completed next to the site for the sheds is the forest-green dome of the farm’s anaerobic digester, ready to generate hundreds of thousands of pounds to help fund the construction at ratepayers’ expense.
Harriet Moore-Boyd, who lives nearby, is campaigning against the farm.
“It’s not fair to make people pay for something they don’t want,” she said.