FEBRUARY 28, 2008: British farmers are being urged to make greater use of rain-fed agriculture by a group of experts.
They are risk of losing their livelihoods and exportingdrought unless they tap the potential of rainfed agriculture and payclose attention to their soil structure, say the experts writingin Food Ethics magazine.Across England and Wales agriculture uses 1.1 percent of all watertaken from our rivers and aquifers (‘blue’ water), but in some areas,at peak times of the year, it accounts for up to 70 percent of totalabstraction.And as the EU Water Framework Directive comes into effect, protectingEurope’s freshwater sources from pollution and overuse, agriculturewill inevitably have to justify high water consumption againstcompeting demands from industry and domestic use, say the experts.Cost rises from water scarcity may drive food manufacturers and retailers to look elsewhere for their raw materials and key products.But instead of moving to areas of the UK where there is more available water, these businesses will go further afield to countries where regulations are less stringent, but water shortages are often worse.This will result in:• Loss of jobs and livelihoods in UK farming and• Exporting drought to water stressed countries.This is already happening in the tomato growing industry.Businesses in East Anglia and the Isle of Wight are relocating to Spain, Portugal and Morocco, where there are acute water shortages, and British tomato growers are going out of business.Sustainable food minister Jeff Rooker, writing in the magazine, says that it shouldn’t just be the farmers who have to bear the brunt of reductions in water use.He argues that while there is no denying that the production and processes involved in getting food from farm to plate consume large amounts of water, it is important to remember that a significant amount is also used in cleaning, handling and manufacturing food products.He welcomes the food industry announcement that a partnership initiative led by the Food and Drink Federation has pledged to reduce water usage by 20 percent by 2020.Tom MacMillan, Food Ethics Council executive director, also welcomes the Federation House Commitment as a good start, but says the real issue is how food companies extend these efforts along their supply chains without pulling the rug out from under producers, whether in the UK or internationally. Manufacturers and retailers do use a lot of water directly, but there’s no escaping that their supply chains are much thirstier.He says sustainable water use will loom increasingly large in buyers’ expectations of farm products. Rather than try to stave off the inevitable, the challenge for farmers is to win commitments from the food industry to do the honourable thing, which is to support producers’ efforts to use water more sustainably. This is about more than irrigation efficiency – it may for instance mean using less thirsty crop varieties and adjusting processing and consumer expectations accordingly.Water stress is an urgent problem, but has been years in the making and, as such, requires a long term solution. Farmer John Turner says that one answer is for farmers to keep a close eye on their soil organic matter, as there has been a severe decline over the last 50 years the land’s capacity to absorb water.Although the process of rebuilding levels of organic matter in soils is very slow, even a fractional increase would increase water drainage and water retention, provide aeration and act as a reservoir for carbon.