Environment secretary Caroline Spelman will be urged by farmers on Monday to ensure food production is given top priority in the looming drought.

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Environment secretary Caroline Spelman will be urged by farmers on Monday to ensure food production is given top priority in the looming drought.

At the national drought summit farmers’ leader Gywn Jones will voice concerns that severe restrictions on irrigation could jeopardise key food sectors across the eastern counties.

The National Farmers’ Union has estimated that the agri-food industry in the fens, which employs about 50,000 people, is worth about £3bn to the economy.

Norfolk farmer and water expert, Andrew Alston, said many growers of vulnerable crops, including potatoes, have reduced acreages because of concerns about likely irrigation restrictions.

He said that a key concern was the exceptionally high soil moisture deficit, which could hit spring-sown crops.

A fortnight ago, Norfolk’s average soil moisture deficit was 50mm, Suffolk’s was 25mm and Essex 35mm.

The latest Environment Agency figures to Wednesday revealed an average deficit of 38.5mm for the eastern area, with Norfolk at 48mm, Suffolk 28mm and Essex 48mm.

Mr Alston, chief executive of Broadland Agricultural Water Abstractors’ Group, said the government needed to make decisions urgently.

Europe’s ruling water framework directive gave scope to react to “prolonged drought” and “exceptional circumstances.

Spain safeguarded a drought-struck region by adopting flexible measures because it recognised agriculture’s exceptional importance to the economy, he added.

“We’re staring a very prolonged drought in the face. We’re approaching the same sort of scenarios where the same sort of moves ought to come into play,” said Mr Alston, who represents 180 farmers with abstraction licences across a large swathe of Norfolk. “If growers can’t irrigate, the quality will be poor and the factories won’t accept second-grade produce,” he added.

“Otherwise we will be looking at the biggest hike in food prices that we’ve ever seen if something isn’t done soon.

“The only people who can override the Environment Agency’s rules is government.

“The cabinet needs to make that decision early.

“I’m not suggesting that they give everyone carte blanche to pump everything dry but there are some catchments where there is water,” said Mr Alston, who farms at Catfield, near Stalham.

He was briefed by Environment Agency officials at the NFU’s Newmarket office with fellow farmers and growers in advance of Monday’s meeting.

Paul Hammett, who is the NFU’s regional environment and land use adviser, said: “We want to see evidence from government that it is giving food producers a fair crack of the whip.

“It goes as far, to be specific, that we’re thinking about exploring the concept of ‘emergency powers’ for agriculture like the water companies, which have got drought orders and permits.

“On the regulatory side, we are pleased with the work that the Environment Agency is doing locally.

“They are listening and we want them to be as flexible as they can when applying the rules and regulations,” said Mr Hammett.

“Government must get the balance right between environmental protection and food production.

“It goes back to food security and for food security we need water security.

“If and when a difficult decision has to be taken, we need to be reassured that any decision is being taken quickly. We can’t afford to wait for two or three weeks for decisions.”

Mr Alston said an example of more flexibility might include allowing abstractors to take more water from boreholes, “possibly half a metre or a metre or perhaps an inch or two in rivers.”

In some cases, boreholes still had 40m of groundwater, so there was some scope.

“I think that the environment could cope with that because we’ve put in such a headroom for the environment,” he added.

In parts of Norfolk, farmers have invested in winter storage – which would not be restricted – but most reservoirs were only about a quarter or one-third of capacity.

“We’ve got to make some grown-up decisions rather than hiding behind the environmental legislation,” he added.

“For some parts of the aquifer, there could be restrictions before the end of the season,” said Mr Alston.

“With luck, we will get through on groundwater but the bigger problem, arguably, is that just as it takes quite a long time to use, so it will take a long time to recharge,” he added.

“We’re already thinking about what the groundwater prospects for 2013 might be,” said Mr Hammett.

7 comments

  • Quite agree with copsychus, if there is an emergency then factories will have to accept slightly imperfect quality. We can import all the spuds and salad produce that we need. Obviously the farmers will get their way and abstract more groundwater, which incidentially replenishes only slowly. No doubt the environment, our trees and the few wetlands we have left will pay the price.

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    guest

    Saturday, February 18, 2012

  • The telling quote is “If growers can’t irrigate, the quality will be poor and the factories won’t accept second-grade produce". If we were all prepared to accept the odd scabby potato in our bag from Tesco, farmers wouldn't perhaps need to irrigate so much.

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    Betty Swallocks

    Saturday, February 18, 2012

  • This is not just a quality of food issue. Without effective irrigation when it is needed there will a lot less food grown too. The effect of drought was very evident last year - one only had to look in many fields to see the consequences of a lack of water and this year could be much worse. Farmers must be given the scope to extract adequate water and the Environment Agency over ruled. Let us also call a halt to the massive increase in the housing plans which are unsustainable and will make matters even worse in the future.

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    andy

    Saturday, February 18, 2012

  • Is water the dew of heaven as William Shakespeare described it or a commodity to be bought and sold in the neoliberal world of the hedge fund managers?

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    Peter Watson

    Monday, February 20, 2012

  • I agree with Copsy.What is wrong with a little muck on the vegetables? Only one thing,the price of vegetables today,you would be paying for the muck.

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    john kendall

    Sunday, February 19, 2012

  • I said something very similar but it kept getting blocked for some unknown reason; but basically potatoes shouldn't be grown in areas that have a low rainfall and a poor water supply that relies on rivers and groundwater.

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    John L Norton

    Saturday, February 18, 2012

  • Access to water is vital to us all, not just those who use this vital resource to make a living. As said previously, our shopping habits form the concerns of retailers. Whilst we are relying on low aquifers, again, only sustainable housing should be allowed, we can build them to use very little water, but it would mean to accept differing standards, again the consumer must change their habits and attitudes. Using the water that falls on our roofs and disappears down the drain to end up in rivers, makes sense, its great for washing cloth and can still be used in the garden.

    Report this comment

    ingo wagenknecht

    Monday, February 20, 2012

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