* This article appeared on our Huff Post column, 27th February 2014 *
There was an odd reaction from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) at their Birmingham Conference this week to proposals for controlled floodwater attenuation in upland farms (and elsewhere); condemning such plans as “ludicrous”.
Many environmental engineers, even the Environment Agency, have been calling for such measures recently. However, in a script that could have come straight from Monty Python, NFU president Peter Kendall said farmland was “far too valuable” for this kind of usage; most peculiar, because this is precisely why such planned measures are being promoted, to protect valuable farmland, in addition to households exposed to the same uncontrolled flood misery and huge recurring costs.
Kendall was even quoted as saying, “We have to put lives and human safety first but we have to put a higher priority on agricultural land.” In other words, sod the public interest if it gets in the way of profits. Actually, storing water on farmland is highly profitable; not least as irrigation from such reservoirs can actually increase yields. But is this really even about the farmers’ profits, or rather those of other vested interests?
The NFU’s ‘Norwegian Blue Parrot’ logic is reinforced by their suggestion that waterways be fully dredged to carry away water swiftly to the sea. But not a lot else, other than expecting further compensation from the public purse for the costs incurred by the recent uncontrolled floods – running mainly off their other members farmland!
Carrying water swiftly away, accelerating the Water Cycle, is also a major effect of a range of activities that underpin modern agro-chemical farming. It is not just the draining of land and ponds that has contributed to the problem but, significantly, over a half century of agro-chemicals, ploughing, the resulting loss of soil humus (carbon) and compaction of the land that has greatly increased flood run-off … and let us not forget the consequent droughts (the result of the swiftly moving water failing to properly recharge the aquifers). All this counterproductive behaviour is heavily subsidised in the first place, which the public then have to pay many times over for the consequences.
It may be that the NFU leaders missed out on those early school lessons that explained the Water Cycle; but there is very likely more to it than meets the eye, as they ‘do protest too much’. In some areas dredging does have a role; but in many areas our river sediments are contaminated, most often with unregulated and toxic agro-chemical residues.
Preventing a closer examination of the real effects of modern Agribusiness may be the NFU’s strategy; but if so, it is one that will surely backfire. There are close parallels in the USA, where last year the New York Times (G P Nabham, July 21, 2013) reported,
“there are dozens of time-tested strategies that our best farmers and ranchers have begun to use. The problem is that several agribusiness advocacy organizations have done their best to block any federal effort to promote them, including leaving them out of the current farm bill or of climate change legislation.”
“One strategy would be to promote the use of locally produced compost to increase the moisture-holding capacity of fields …”
“we need to reduce the bureaucratic hurdles to using small and medium-scale rainwater harvesting … urban and rural food production can be greatly enhanced …”
The effective moderation of flood and drought calls for rigorous hydraulic planning on a catchment basis, mapping and planning water storage facilities, where this can be safely applied, together with proactive measures to reverse the effects of soil erosion and compaction. The corporate Agribusiness agenda is extremely powerful and does not like such close examination of its real consequences; hence perhaps the NFU’s suggestion to ‘flush it all out to the sea’.
To paraphrase Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for Defra, who in October last year stated that opponents to GM crops are ‘wicked’, we could more reasonably state that the NFU and Defra are ‘wicked’ for not promoting the methods outlined above in the New York Times. For these methods can reduce the risks and the costs to the public while maintaining or increasing the UK’s food supply in a manner that can be applied all around the world to bring arid regions back into abundant production. And (here is the likely main reason for this ludicrous NFU objection) dramatically reduce much need for agrochemicals or GM crops anywhere on the planet.