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Droughts to hit food production in 2020s?

10 July 2013

English food production could be ‘devastated’ by droughts in the 2020s, according to a report from the government’s official climate change advisors. 

The report adds that, unless action is taken, the availability of water that farmers use for crops could be halved. As a result of increasingly hot and dry summers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) warns that current farming practices may be allowing the country’s richest soils to be washed or blown away.

Commenting on the fact that about 40% of the UK’s food is currently imported, Lord John Krebs, who led the CCC report, said: “If we don't start acting now we will be in serious trouble. We already rely on food imports to a significant extent." 

Some climate scientists claim that summers in the medium term will become drier and hotter. The CCC found that a dry year in the 2020s could see an irrigation shortfall of 120billion litres, half the current total used by farmers. Furthermore, those areas most at risk of drought – the fields of east and southern England – are currently the most productive.

The report advises farmers to build twice as many reservoirs on their land than exist now and also cut the amount of water used per hectare by 50%. It also states the importance of the cost of water reflecting how scarce it is. At present, the cheapest water by far is provided by Anglian water, despite that region being one of the driest in the country.

Krebs believes that if the threat of drought can be avoided climate change could actually present new opportunities for English farmers because there will be longer, warmer growing seasons. On 1 July, DEFRA published its strategy to adapt to global warming and, while Krebs said it covered all the key areas, he added that it contained very few targets. "If it is just 'talks about talks', that is not going to help the country adapt," he said. Krebs asserted that new water abstraction rules, unchanged since the 1960s, were urgently needed, but government legislation is not planned until after 2015.

The CCC report, published on Wednesday, spells out the challenges for agriculture and other land uses from the extreme weather expected from global warming. It warned that carbon rich soils on which many crops depend are being washed or blown away in places. "This comes down to the more careful stewardship of soils by farmers," said Krebs.

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