‘Dustbowl’ risk in East Anglia could be food security tipping point, warns report

Potato lifting in a field at Terrington St Clement. Picture: Ian Burt

Potato lifting in a field at Terrington St Clement. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

A collapse in agriculture or even a fall in government could be prompted by a major drought in East Anglia, academics have warned.

Dust storm in the Texas in 1935. Photo from NOAA George E. Marsh Album

Dust storm in the Texas in 1935. Photo from NOAA George E. Marsh Album - Credit: NOAA George E. Marsh Album

A new report launched at an event in parliament this week looking at threats to global food security has highlighted the consequences of 'tipping points' caused by a shift in the environment.

The government-backed Global Food Security (GFS) programme looked at the consequences for food security if East Anglia was turned into a 'dustbowl'.

Anglia Ruskin univeristy academics warn the degradation and loss of peat soils in the region could result in widespread soil erosion.

The report said it was 'plausible' there could be an unprecedented drought that could lead to dustbowl conditions, with erosion driven by strong winds.


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This was avoided in 2012 when late spring rains helped avert a drought which had started in 2010.

The report said that a loss of fertility would reduce the ability to produce home-grown vegetables. East Anglia accounts for about 29pc of Britain's area planted for potatoes.

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The report warned that a drought would have an economic impact beyond farm revenues, including employment.

In Fenland 12pc of all businesses are agricultural, which is twice the national average.

Professor Aled Jones, director of Anglia Ruskin's Global Sustainability Institute,, said: 'Tipping points exist in both physical and socio-economic systems including governmental or financial systems. These systems interact in complex ways.

'Small shocks may have little impact and we could believe the system is resilient. However, a particular shock, or set of shocks could tip the system into a new state. This new state could represent a collapse in agriculture or even the fall of a government.'

FARMING REACTION

Warnings that East Anglia could become a dustbowl in a new report into food security have been dismissed by some in the farming community as 'inappropriate' and 'overblown'.

Rob Wise, the National Farmers' Union environment advisor for East Anglia, said the report raised serious issues about the impact of climate change that members were all too well aware of, but they had been making big strides in production techniques over the last couple of decades to minimise peat loss and it was in members' interests to maintain soil health.

He claimed the rate of loss had more or less been halted and there was no net peat loss that in parts of the Fens where subterranean irrigation had been used.

Mr Wise also said warnings of a dustbowl - often associated with the US mid-West dustbowl - was 'overblown'.

He said the soil structures in the mid-West were different to those in the Fens, adding: 'Making the jump from to the Fens of East Anglia to soil types in Kansas and Iowa is perhaps somewhat inappropriate.'

He said underlying soils in the Fens would be a lot more resistant to 'wind blow' than the types of soil in Iowa and Kansas.

Tony Bambridge, managing director of B&C Farming in Marsham, and chairman-elect for NFU Norfolk, said the report was 'scare-mongering' and also claimed that it ignored mitigation work and had a poor understanding of what was happening on farms.

Mr Wise said the NFU would have liked to be involved in any ongoing research, and had its own climate change advisor.

'We are deeply embedded in the community of research looking at climate change worldwide and in our own backyard and in the UK,' he added.

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