Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Is the British Potato in Peril?

It is estimated that the people of the United Kingdom consume their way through their country's annual agricultural production by about Easter each year.   Overall, therefore, Brits rely on imports for about two-thirds of their foodstuffs.  Put another way, for two-thirds of the year, Brits eat other peoples' food.

In good times that's an unhealthy dependence on foreign food stocks.  These aren't good times.   Many months ago the UN Food and Agriculture Organization declared the world has moved into a permanent food crisis.   Droughts and floods and depletion of groundwater reserves are hobbling our ability to grow enough food to affordably feed our civilization.

A few years ago when Labour governed the UK, British farmers were urged to ramp up agricultural production to make the UK at least somewhat more food self-sufficient.  And then the drought set in.   East Anglia farmer Richard Wrinch argues that Britain needs an agricultural reformation.

"We can't rely on the water sources we used to, we have to plan for a future with much less water," he said. "It is more important than ever that we get private reservoirs built on farms, that we use water more economically and find more drought resistant crops." The Environment Agency and Defra must loosen regulations around building water tanks and farmers will have to work together more, he believes. "We need that investment and help from the government – if they don't do it now it is very short-sighted."

Farmers are facing financial ruin because of the lack of water, with many forced to change their planned crops for others that require less water. "People are having to stop growing crops that use a lot of water, like potatoes or salad crops. If farmers are in contracts and can't supply the produce they can be hit with financial penalties and there are farmers facing that throughout the country."

 Although the public are aware of the drought, they are disconnected from the stark situation facing many farmers who rely heavily on water for their livelihoods, he said. "It's been in the news enough for people to be aware of a hose-pipe ban, but I doubt very much people realise what this means for farmers," he said. "Not being able to wash your car or your patio is a an inconvenience, but when people are paying an extra 50p for their lettuce, or potatoes drop in quality and become more expensive, then it will hit home," he said.

The public disconnect between climate change and food security is widespread and even crosses Canada.   Those with no connection to agriculture have difficulty linking warm, dry winters with agricultural calamity.   Farming is inherently dependent on climate stability.   It's a function of the right amount of precipitation at the right times throughout the crop cycle.   Too much rain at the outset and the farmer can't get on the land to plant.   Too much rain during the growing season and the crops can rot in the fields.   Too little rain and the crops are stunted.   Too much rain at harvest time and the farmer may not be able to get on the land to bring in the crop.

Global warming creates agricultural havoc.   A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapour creating a water deficit elsewhere in the hydrological cycle.   But, when a super-saturated atmosphere does unload, it can be torrential, leading to floods or, worse, cyclical droughts and floods, both of them potentially lethal to agriculture.  It doesn't take much to create agricultural climate instability.

There are work-arounds, adaptation strategies, to be sure and they can offset some climate change impacts.   Farmers like Richard Wrinch envision giving up part of his land to construct reservoirs while using his water resources more carefully and switching to drought-resistant crops.   Fortunately for Mr. Wrinch, he lives in East Anglia, by the sea, far away from the tropics and equatorial zones.   That means he has options that many others will not.  And, unfortunately, those "others" tend to live in countries that Britons often look to to make up their own agricultural deficits.

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