Spelman urged to give food production top priority in looming drought

ENVIRONMENT Secretary Caroline Spelman was urged by farmers to ensure food production is given top priority in the looming drought at a national summit today..

Farmers’ leader Gywn Jones voiced concerns that severe restrictions on irrigation could jeopardise key food sectors across the eastern counties.

East Anglian 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, Suffolk’s average soil moisture deficit was 25mm, Essex 35mm and Norfolk’s 50mm.

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

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

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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.

“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.”

He was briefed by Environment Agency officials at the NFU’s Newmarket office with fellow farmers and growers in advance of today’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 it 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 East Anglia, 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.