The heavy rainfall of recent weeks is doing more than damage people’s homes. In some areas, it’s causing real problems for parts of the farming industry. The extreme weather combined with a brand-new layer of Brexit red tape, points to significant implications for our food security.
At the beginning of January, Storm Henk deluged much of the country, especially the Midlands. In the aftermath, the majority of media attention focused on the damage to property and questions about why so many homes were flooded. Little attention seemed to be paid to other consequences.
Food production threatened
Then on 6 January, Liz Webster (founder of Save British Farming) posted on social media. “Much of our farm has been under water since October,” she wrote. She detailed damage to crops on her land and that of her neighbours and asked: “Who is going to feed Britain?”
Like Liz’s farm near Swindon, Lincolnshire was badly affected. It prides itself on being one of the most important food production areas in the UK. Curiously, although county councillors regularly warn against the threat to the nation’s food supply from the building of green energy infrastructure, when thousands of acres of farmland are inundated by flood water, there has not been one word from them.
Andrew Ward is a Lincolnshire farmer. He farms around 650 hectares of arable land in the county. Recently he made the news for harvesting the first UK-grown crop of beans ‒ which our climate had previously prevented from being grown – suitable for baked beans.
Following the storms, he took to Wardy’s Waffle (his YouTube channel) to illustrate the scale and impact of the floods on farmland in and around Lincoln. In November, he reported on the damage to land worked by three other farmers including his godson. This part of Lincolnshire is very flat and all were keen to emphasise that flood water simply wasn’t draining away fast enough. They attributed this to Environment Agency (EA) policy, their communications strategy, lack of urgency and indifference to farmers.
A month later, he attended a meeting with the EA. Discussion took place around ideas for water storage on land, in the event of flooding. But he also observed that taking land out of food production wasn’t an ideal long-term solution and he wondered whether the government actually understood the problems farmers had and whether the EA was telling ministers what they needed to hear.
He had good cause to be concerned. The amount of rain that fell during Storm Henk caused the bank of the River Barlings (which feeds into the River Witham) to collapse, covering 2,000 acres of prime food-producing soil with water up to three metres deep. The situation was so bad that flooding minister Robbie Moore MP visited the area, to see things for himself and talk to the farmers affected.
To what end? Shortly after his visit, Moore made a statement to parliament. He was questioned by Edward Leigh MP in whose constituency the farms are. Leigh said: “Farmers continually tell me the EA has prioritised wildlife habitat over getting dykes and watercourses cleared. The result is flooding.”
Moore acknowledged the challenges farmers faced, praised the work of the Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) and stressed the need to protect the country’s best farmland. I was told by Ward that the farmers’ view – that the flat land east of Lincoln needs to drain surplus rainwater as fast as possible – was accepted. Furthermore, Defra is working on a pilot project bespoke to the county, to address these concerns.
In his statement, Moore also mentioned the farming recovery fund which offers grants of “up to £25,000” to affected farmers. That was welcomed by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Deputy President Tom Bradshaw who added: “Thousands of acres of productive farmland are still under water and many crops are not going to survive the winter with the huge financial stress that brings.”
Back to the question – how secure is our food supply?
With farming clearly under pressure, Webster’s question – “Once the EU import checks dry up EU foods, where will the food come from?” – is of paramount importance.
The UK hasn’t been self-sufficient in food production for a long time. Prior to 2016, our membership of the EU single market and customs union meant we could easily plug the shortfall with imports from our nearest neighbours. The government’s determination to leave behind the legacy of the EU, however, means consumers now cannot be certain about the availability and quality of the food they want to buy.
We have already seen confusion over food travelling from the UK to Northern Ireland. Such products have to be labelled ‘Not for EU’, to ensure they do not enter the Single Market via Ireland, but this has created doubt, even anger, that British consumers are being offered poorer quality.
New border checks
Now, border checks will finally be imposed this year on EU food imports after no fewer than five postponements. This will have a number of significant consequences for food security. The Financial Times (FT) reports that these checks will take place 20 miles inland from Dover. There will be delays while they are carried out. There also appears to be a genuine threat that some food will simply bypass the checkpoint, as the recent report on the seizure of quantities of contaminated pork illustrates. And guess what? The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs appears not to be too concerned.
It all means food being imported from elsewhere. Doubtless the government would point to the trade deals they have signed but UK farmers are angered that they will undercut their livelihoods. Then there’s the international situation. War in the Middle East is already affecting shipping, which is rerouting away from the Suez Canal. Drought in The Panama Canal is also having an effect. This will undoubtedly add delay, cost and possibly shortages to food supply.
The damage to the industry from both the floods and the impact of Brexit means that months of hardship and uncertainty seem unavoidable.
The possibility that we’re not far away from a genuine crisis in our food supply cannot be ignored.