Ross Clark Ross Clark

Are we really reaching ‘farmaggedon’?

(Photo: Getty)

I happened to be walking in the Cambridgeshire fens this morning while listening to the latest instalment of ‘farmageddon’ – the narrative that Britain is facing food shortages due to biblical levels of rain over the winter. There was something of a conflict between the sight before my eyes with what Rachel Hallos, vice president of the National Farmers Union, was telling the Today programme as she begged the government for emergency money. These are some of the lowest-lying fields in England, with large parts lying four or five feet below sea level. They are formed largely of peat, which easily becomes waterlogged. Yet it was a pretty normal spring sight. A tractor was purring as it prepared ground for more crops. Winter crops – be they wheat or barley, I wasn’t close enough to identify – had created a carpet of green. Two vast fields had been planted with potatoes, concealed beneath deep ridges. There was some water standing in these fields a few weeks ago but the only sign of it now is a couple of bald patches – occupying less than 1 per cent of fields in which they lie.

I know that it has been very wet and that some farmers have had it much worse. There is one Lincolnshire farmer who keeps cropping up in the news complaining that his land has been underwater since last October. What tends to be left out of the reporting is that his land, like around my way, is fenland which would be underwater virtually every winter were it not for a system of dykes, pumping stations and embanked rivers – and that what happened in this case was that one of the river banks gave way, which tends to happen if they are not maintained well enough. The water can’t drain away naturally and will be there until it is pumped away or it evaporates.

No-one should be surprised that the NFU is using the wet winter to plead for more government handouts – the wider background to this winter is that the farming industry continues to negotiate a post-Brexit subsidy regime, and some farmers feel deeply aggrieved that they might have to compete with tariff-free imports of food from Australia and other countries as the UK pursues its own trade deals.

But just how bad is the situation in agriculture at the moment? One of the figures much quoted over the past week, published by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), claims that the amount of wheat planted this year is forecast to be down 15 per cent down on last year, with oilseed rape down 28 per cent. To put that into context, it is normal for the planted area of wheat to vary by 15 to 20 per cent year by year according to the weather and market conditions. Over the past decade, the amount of land planted with wheat in England has swung between 1.6 million hectares and 2.1 million hectares. The outlier was 2020, when only 1.4 million hectares were planted. That was also preceded by a wet winter but had the added problem of the pandemic.

Moreover, while farmers have struggled to plant winter wheat and barley, many have managed to get spring barley into the ground. The area planted with spring barley is up 30 per cent to 881,000 acres this year and the area planted with oats is up 25 per cent from 167,000 hectares to 209,000 hectares. So, while you may be paying a little extra for your bread next year you could well be paying less for your porridge. This year’s figures also have to be put into the context of a long term decline in the amount of land in England planted with wheat and oilseed rape. Both crops have declined – in wet and dry years – over the past decade, while oats and barley have increased.

So, yes, it has been very wet over a wide area of Britain, southern England especially. That has caused farmers’ many problems. But no, we are not facing starvation from biblical flooding caused by climate change.

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