Food for Britain when in drought

Here’s my entry for last year’s Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize.

The deadline was 25 April 2012. As you can see, I wrote about the way things were in the spring and I assumed that when my article would win, and therefore would appear in print, we’d be looking back on a year of drought. Oops. No prizes for guessing why I didn’t get shortlisted. I signed over copyright of the article when I entered the competition, but they didn’t shortlist me and I’m publishing it here instead. So sue me.

Anyway, something good came out of this. It was Prof Tim Benton (mentioned in the article) who suggested I start a science blog. And here I am. I’ll be back in the Wellcome Trust competition this year, taking fewer chances on time-sensitive topics.

Food for Britain when in drought

In a country whose national pastime is to moan about wet weather, the idea of drought can seem like a joke. But it’s been no joke in 2012. In some parts of Britain, 2012’s water shortages rival the infamous drought of 1976.

Dry weather isn’t just about topping up our suntans while cars aren’t washed and lawns aren’t sprinkled. Dry weather is about food.

Martin Tillotson of the scientific group water@leeds says we should consider water footprint. That footprint is the volume of freshwater used to bring a product to us. How much water are you taking home in vegetables and fruits, grains, meat, milk and eggs? How much water have farmers and growers, hauliers and retailers used to put that food in your basket? The water footprint can be enormous. Professor Tillotson says, ‘In the UK, only about 3% of the water we use flows through the taps in our homes. The rest is physically contained or consumed in the supply chain of the goods and services we consume.’ For goods and services used in the UK, 65% of this ‘embedded water’ is imported. Therefore our choices here affect water management in other parts of the world.

Water across the British Isles has been managed for many centuries. We have ditches and underground drains to limit flooding, locks to control flow in rivers and canals, and reservoirs to store water. In many places there are lakes underground, providing groundwater which is abstracted through boreholes. Water is transferred through rivers and canals. But now as climate changes and population rises, some of these arrangements may not be working well enough.

Farmers notice decreasing, erratic rainfall. Summers have become wetter. Winters have become drier. Due to these changes arable farmers and market gardeners face problems from sowing to harvest while for livestock farmers, grass grows poorly.

Tim Benton, UK Champion for Global Food Security, agrees that we have a problem with water. This was a pressing issue in 2012 after the Environment Agency tightened restrictions on abstraction from rivers and underground lakes.

In 2012 EA advised farmers to harvest rainwater from roofs. Polytunnels can reduce evaporation. But not everybody likes to see row after row of polytunnels in the countryside. In any case, not all crops lend themselves to polytunnel growing. Meanwhile the English Beef and Lamb Executive advised livestock farmers to supplement grass with fodder crops.

We have a North-South water divide. By early 2012 the English South East had seen the driest 18 months since records began. Half of England was under hosepipe ban. Meanwhile our population continued to rise, particularly in the South East. Professor Tillotson notes ‘more single occupancy homes and a strong correlation between rising affluence and water consumption.’

Yet floods hit the English North West and parts of Wales and Scotland. Farmers in those areas produce vegetables and fruits, grains, meat, milk and eggs. But those producers came under pressure in 2012 when they suffered flooding and when the English South East suffered drought.

How can flooding happen in a time of drought? It’s largely due to poor drainage. Farmers say that draining their land is difficult now because drains and waterways are blocked or in need of maintenance. Some farmers blame EA for a lack of waterway maintenance. Some farmers blame water companies for leaky pipes which waste water. But EA says, ‘Water companies are investing in long-term mains replacement programmes to reduce leakage.’

As drought spreads some farmers want to build new reservoirs and to install more irrigation equipment. Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, announced new grants in 2012 which could be used for reservoir building. But there’s only so much water to go around. This year farmers made tough decisions about whether to grow potatoes and other vegetables that need irrigation.

The potato is one of our most important crops and it’s irrigated to control the common disease called potato scab. Scab doesn’t harm the consumer but it’s ugly and prices suffer. So perhaps we need more scab-resistant potato varieties. Those are being developed by conventional breeding and even by genetic modification.

We have hills and mountains in the North and West of our islands. When winds from the Atlantic reach us they shed rain on those hills while the South and East are drier. We can’t move mountains! Droughts do happen naturally due to lack of rain. But now, says Professor Benton, ‘The growing of water-expensive crops like potatoes, onions and carrots may need to migrate North.’

Drought is no joke in Britain this year. On these densely populated islands, agriculture and horticulture must become more water-efficient. We need our food to stay plentiful and affordable.

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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4 Responses to Food for Britain when in drought

  1. Finn Holding says:

    Nice work Sam. I guess you’ve unintentionally highlighted a key issue here – that climate change is making the weather unpredictable on both shorter and longer timescales. It seems the food producers are going to really have their work cut out to find ways to deal with that, but flexibility and diversity seem to be key.

    And to flog my regular whipping boy, it seems the farmers need to be financially enabled to invest in the infrastructure required to facilitate that flexibility in a way which isn’t environmentally ruinous – which will mean supermarkets, middle men and shareholders taking a hit for the greater good. And the rest of us need to get in the habit of not wasting food.

    Heresy, I know, in this free market lunatic asylum we now live in 🙂

    There was a TV show on a couple of days ago hosted by Gary Rhodes and he was at a British tomato farm which requires heated glasshouses all year round (how bonkers is that?!). But they had developed their own energy efficient heating (hats off to them for that!) using methane produced from waste fruit and vegetables. So the fuel was skips full of grapes, bananas, pineapples etc. etc., a lot of which had been flown in from foreign countries. Which begs the question: why are we flying soft fruit around the world simply to be turned into methane? It makes no sense.

    So your point about producing the right food in the right place is a very valid one and needs some serious thought. Like producing tubers where it rains and tomatoes where the sun shines… And not throwing our imported tropical fruit in the bin.

    • argylesock says:

      Yes indeed. Thank you for this very thoughtful comment, which I’ll digest aerobically 😉

      I hesitated about posting the article above, because of the copyright issue and because I feel silly for having been caught out by the Jet Stream. But I learned a lot while researching and writing the article and I’m continuing to learn. There was good talking on Sky News today (3rd Jan) about how unpredictable the weather is now.

  2. Our hungry planet needs more good thinkers such as yourself.

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