WWF shelved report exposing River Wye pollution ‘to keep Tesco happy’

<span>The condition of the River Wye was downgraded to ‘unfavourable-declining’ last year by Natural England. </span><span>Photograph: Nick Jenkins/Alamy</span>
The condition of the River Wye was downgraded to ‘unfavourable-declining’ last year by Natural England. Photograph: Nick Jenkins/Alamy

The wildlife charity WWF-UK shelved a report that warned how intensive chicken production is devastating the River Wye, the Observer can reveal.

Since 2018, the charity has received more than £6m in donations from the supermarket chain Tesco, which has faced action from campaigners over the decline of the Wye because many of the intensive poultry farms in the river’s catchment area are in its ­supply chain.

The charity was due to publish a report on fixing the food system, which included the impact of intensive chicken farming on the river. One source claimed the proposed 2022 report was pulled after concerns were raised about the potential fallout.

WWF said this weekend the report failed to meet its rigorous standards and the decision was not linked to any partnership.

But a source with knowledge of the decision said: “Shelving the report was completely the wrong thing to do. They didn’t want to rock the boat. The attitude was: ‘We’re going after a partner. What’s the point?’”

WWF’s partnership with Tesco ran from 2018 to 2023 and focused on tackling environmental impacts in the food system. The supermarket provided funding in the range of between £500,000 and £2m for each year of the partnership.

In the summer of 2022, WWF, which has been concerned about the effects of global food production on wildlife and ecology, was scheduled to publish a report on fixing the food system called “Feeling the Bite”. It warned that about a million species were threatened.

The hard-hitting report said in the UK and around the world “how we eat is driving a food production system that is destroying the planet”. It warned that a “broken” food system was putting an impossible strain on nature.

As well as highlighting the threat globally to Asian elephants and the maned wolf in South America, it documented the plight of the River Wye as a case study.

It warned that the increase in phosphate-rich manure produced by poultry farms was causing deadly algae blooms that “suffocate plants and fish, and leave birds such as kingfishers and dippers without food”.

The report was set to be published in 2022 but, the source claims, it was proposed that publication be deferred and the Wye case study removed amid concerns that environmental campaigners would highlight WWF’s partnership with Tesco.

A decision was later taken to shelve the report in its entirety. The source said that once the Wye case study had been removed, it raised questions about the report’s overall strength.

Tesco said this weekend it did not have any involvement in the report or the decision for it not to be published.

Dave Lewis, the former chief executive of Tesco, is chair of the board of trustees at WWF. The charity said he also had no involvement in the project or the decision-making surrounding it.

Natural England announced in May last year it had downgraded the condition of the River Wye to “unfavourable – declining”.

Tesco has faced criticism over its role in supporting an unsustainable supply chain in the Wye catchment.

Charles Watson, founder and chair of the charity River Action, which raises awareness of river pollution, said the boom in poultry production in the Wye catchment area had been fuelled by demand from Tesco, as well as other supermarkets. He said: “Tesco’s logo is stamped all over the Wye.”

Related: ‘It's like pea soup’: poultry farms turn Wye into wildlife death trap

WWF has agreed a number of corporate partnerships in recent years, including with Aviva, HSBC and the consumer goods company Reckitt. The charity’s corporate donations and income totalled £16.7m in the year to 30 June 2023, out of a total income of £94m.

A WWF spokesperson said: “We are a science-led organisation and on reviewing drafts of the report, we concluded that it did not meet our rigorous standards. The decision not to proceed with this report was not connected to any individual case study within it or our relationships with partners.

“We are deeply concerned by the devastating impact that pollution is having on the UK’s rivers, particularly the Wye, and have taken the government to court over its failure to act on river pollution. We continue to work to drive action to tackle the food system’s impacts on the environment, both in the UK and overseas.”

A Tesco spokesperson said: “This report was not part of our work with WWF and we were not involved in its development, nor any decisions about publishing it. The work of our partnership with WWF was aimed at tackling the biggest environmental impacts of our food system, including helping to protect water quality and biodiversity in supply chains.

“We’re committed to playing our part in protecting the River Wye, alongside other actors across the food industry, and have worked closely with local stakeholders since 2019 to tackle water pollution in the area.

“We’re also providing multi-year funding for a number of water catchment projects.”