Farmers call on Truss and Sunak to tackle ‘immoral’ water wastage

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Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak must draw up emergency water plans to tackle “immoral” wastage, the president of the National Farmers’ Union has said.

Farmers fear their crops will be damaged, or even fail, due to the recent dry weather. If there is no significant rainfall in autumn and winter, drained reservoirs and empty rivers will not be filled up sufficiently for a lot of farming to be viable next year. And next year’s potential drought could be more severe than this summer’s dry conditions.

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Minette Batters, the NFU president, told the Guardian that none of the leadership candidates had drawn up a water security plan and she believed the issue was being neglected by politicians.

“I encourage the two candidates to commit to food security, and water has to be one of the first places we start because we will never have a resilient food system if we don’t have resilient water infrastructure,” she said.

“It is immoral and unethical to think that we can continue to let our water go to waste. I want to hear from both of them how they plan to fix the huge problems we now face when it comes to water.”

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To her surprise, despite the drought dominating conversations across Britain, “they haven’t mentioned water. We’ve been demanding a whole new approach to water for a long time now, it’s outrageous that we don’t have the ability to move water or pay farmers to store water.”

Farmers have contacted Batters, who run an arable and beef farm in Wiltshire, to say they are worried about how little water their crops have been getting.

The President of the National Farmers' Union, Minette Batters.

“It surprises me how much we take food for granted,” says Minette Batters. Photo: Fototek/PA

“Our members are very worried at the moment, the situation with potatoes is really serious, they are a very water hungry crop, they need access to water. Right now we just don’t have enough water for our potatoes, carrots, lettuce. And who knows what else if these dry conditions continue, she said.

Compared to other countries, the UK receives a fair share of water and often tops the leaderboard as the rainiest country in Europe. “We’re lucky to be able to do something about it, other countries don’t have that luxury,” Batters said.

“It surprises me how much we take food for granted, and we take water for granted until it gets low, and then we start to panic about snake bans. We need a radical rethink of how we maintain our precious supplies.”

Livestock are already being fed their winter stocks of hay, as the grass has died, meaning they may struggle to be fed in later months, and farmers are deciding to drill crops for next year’s harvest in the coming weeks. If dry conditions continue, they may decide not to, causing food security issues.

Jake Fiennes, who is on the NFU’s Environment Forum for East Anglia and manages arable and beef farming at the Holkham estate in Norfolk, said both sectors were under pressure from the dry conditions and the situation could get even worse next year.

“In East Anglia you have farmers feeding cattle their hay in August – this is hay they only cut in June – because there’s no grass left. They are already using their winter storage. This raises concerns about what they will get food for in the winter.”

Agricultural crops are also under threat, Fiennes said: “We look at the beet crop, beet puts on most of its weight in August and September, so the beet growers are going to have a significantly reduced tonnage.

“I have seen sugar beet plants dying. This is unprecedented: I have never seen anything to this extent in the 30 years I have been working in the country.”

A bare patch of dry, cracked soil in a barley field

A bare patch of dry, cracked soil in a barley field. Many farmers are calling for a snake ban. Photo: Simon Annable/Alamy

Those working in the countryside have been shocked by the water companies’ slow response to the lack of rain.

“I’m a bit amazed by water companies that apparently don’t want to upset people by not introducing snake bans,” Fiennes said, adding: “When we have droughts and we run out of food, when we have climate change, people are going to be very upset. ! “

Jake Freestone, a regenerative farmer in the Cotswolds, found his crops had some drought resilience when he spent years improving the soil.

“We’re trying to build organic matter in the soil, which is like a massive sponge that can hold water in times of drought.” He says that the water-holding capacity increases, which then improves the yield, and that rain sinks into the soil instead of running off.

“We don’t disturb the soil, we drill directly into the remains of the previous crop, no plowing. What we do with the soil is already helping, we get better soil structure so the roots of the plants can go down deeper and soak up more of the deeper water.

“And we have a 10-degree difference in surface temperature on our soil where we have cover crops – this reduces heat stress in the crop.”

But he is still worried: “For the 2022 harvest, we have not been as badly affected as we feared. But my concern going forward is that we should be planting crops like canola now, but the ground is just too dry. They will not be able to germinate and grow.”

These books come as parts of England face the driest conditions on record, with limited rainfall across the country. A heatwave is forecast this week, with several days above 30C (86F) and little or no rain.

Met Office forecaster Tom Morgan said: “It looks like a prolonged period of dry weather and that is obviously bad news for the south of England, where some rain would really be useful now.”

Truss and Sunak have been contacted for comment.

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