Lough Neagh: A Case Study in How Capitalism Kills the Environment

By Oisín Hill

Lough Neagh, Ireland’s largest body of freshwater, and the source of 40% of the North’s drinking water, is set for another year of poisoning by toxic blue-green algae. In summer 2023 a “bloom” of toxic sludge, formed from thick mats of cyanobacteria, gave its surface a sickly green colour visible from space. 

The algal bloom has had a devastating impact on the Lough’s unique ecosystem, depleting oxygen from the water and suffocating wildlife. On top of this, cyanobacteria release toxic compounds into the water, potentially posing an even greater threat to public health and the environment. Last year, the bloom killed dogs and wildlife, with at least one fisherman falling ill after contact. All indications suggest that the crisis will become more severe in the coming months. With water treatment infrastructure buckling under pressure due to decades of austerity, serious questions must be raised about the state’s capacity to maintain public health.

This destruction was not inevitable, nor an accident. The disaster in Lough Neagh is a direct result of decades of state failure, and of a system that puts the profits of a few over the health of people and ecosystems.

Algal blooms happen when a huge amount of nutrients are introduced into an aquatic ecosystem, spurring rapid growth in algae populations, in a process known as eutrophication. The largest contributor (~64%) of nutrients in Lough Neagh is agricultural runoff; fertiliser from fields and animal dung from battery farms flows into rivers connected to the Lough. 

While the dumping of agricultural waste is technically illegal, the regulations are seldom enforced. Even when polluters are taken to court only a fraction are convicted. In the rare cases of a conviction, fines are minuscule, rarely exceeding £1000. Stormont has made it far more profitable for farm owners to pollute and pay the fine than to spend the money to dispose of waste safely and sustainably. The real, long-term costs of pollution are of course going to be paid by working-class people, a familiar story after environmental disasters across the world. But Stormont didn’t just fail to prevent Lough Neagh from becoming a giant septic tank – they actively facilitated it.

Through the adoption of the “Going for Growth (GfG)” strategy, backed by all major parties and overseen by Michelle O’Neill (then Minister for Agriculture, Stormont massively subsidised the creation of industrial factory farms for pork and poultry. This ramped up pollution and greenhouse emissions. Farms in the North now produce nine million cubic metres of waste per year, more than could ever be used as fertiliser. This waste typically ends up in nearby waterways, where it fertilises the toxic bloom.

For the ultra-wealthy, the strategy was a huge success. Throughout the 2010s pig and poultry production increased massively (72% and 35% respectively). GfG was reportedly responsible for an increase of £1 billion a year in agricultural sales from 2012. For the most part, this vast wealth is not flowing into the North’s rural communities. Instead, the main beneficiaries of GfG have been multi-national agri-food monopolies like Moy Park. A 2024 BBC report found that since 2017 Moy Park breached Northern Ireland environmental law hundreds of times; thus far, they have never been prosecuted.

Despite significant public outcry at the state of the Lough, the Executive has made little commitment to addressing the problem, blaming budgetary limitations. This ignores the vast amount of wealth sitting in the hands of the businesses that have profited from the destruction of the Lough. These businesses can and should be brought under democratic control, and their wealth redirected into ecosystem restoration, improving our water treatment infrastructure, and transitioning to more sustainable methods of agriculture. 

In the wasteland that has been made in Lough Neagh by agri-business moguls, we see how the capitalist drive towards profit is incompatible with the long-term health of ecosystems, and the people that they sustain.

The movement to save the Lough can learn much from the struggles for environmental justice in the Amazon. Francisco “Chico” Mendes, who organised a mass movement of workers and oppressed peoples against deforestation, was ultimately murdered by gunmen paid by the agricultural lobby. He famously declared: “Ecology without class struggle is just gardening.” To build a just, sustainable future for the Lough we must aspire to be more than just gardeners.

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