Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak must set out emergency water plans to tackle “immoral” wastage, the president of the National Farmers’ Union has said.
Farmers fear their crops will be harmed, or even fail, due to the recent dry weather. If there is not significant rainfall this autumn and winter, drained reservoirs and empty rivers will not refill 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 arid conditions.
Minette Batters, the NFU president, told the Guardian that neither leadership candidate had set out a water security plan, and that she believed the problem was being neglected by politicians.
“I am calling on the two candidates to commit to food security, and water has to be one of the first places that we start as we will never have a resilient food system if we don’t have resilient water infrastructure,” she said.
“It’s immoral and unethical to think we can continue to go on allowing our water to be wasted. I want to hear from both of them how they plan to fix the huge problems we are currently facing when it comes to water.”
To her surprise, despite the drought dominating conversations across Britain, “they haven’t mentioned water. We have been calling for a long time now for water to have a totally fresh approach, it’s outrageous that we have no ability to move water, or to pay farmers for storing water.”
Farmers have been contacting Batters, who runs an arable and beef farm in Wiltshire, to say they are scared about how little water their crops have received.
“Our members are very concerned 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, lettuces. And who knows what else if these dry conditions carry on,” she said.
Compared with other countries, Britain gets a reasonable share of water and often tops the leaderboard as the rainiest country in Europe. “We are lucky that we can do something about it, other countries don’t have that luxury,” Batters said.
“It amazes me how much we take food for granted, and we take water so for granted until it’s running short and then we start panicking about hosepipe bans. We need a radical rethink on how we maintain our precious supplies.”
Livestock are already being fed their winter stocks of hay, as the grass is dead, meaning they could struggle to be fed in later months, and farmers are deciding to drill crops for next year’s harvest in the next few weeks. If dry conditions continue, they may decide not to, causing food security problems.
Jake Fiennes, who is on the NFU environment forum for East Anglia, and manages arable and beef farming at Holkham estate in Norfolk, said both sectors were facing pressure from the dry conditions, and the situation could get even worse next year.
“In East Anglia, you’ve got farmers feeding cattle their hay in August – this is hay they only cut in June – because there is no grass left. They are already using their winter stock. This raises concerns for what they will be fed in winter.”
Arable crops are also under threat, Fiennes said: “We look at the sugar beet crop, sugar beet puts on the bulk of its weight in August and September, so the sugar beet growers are going to have a significantly reduced tonnage.
“I’ve seen sugar beet plants that are dying off. This is unprecedented: I have never seen anything to this extent in my 30-odd years of working on the land.”
Those who work in the countryside have been shocked at the slow response by water companies to the lack of rain.
“I am slightly stunned by water companies apparently not wanting to upset people by not putting in place hosepipe bans,” Fiennes said, adding: “When we have drought and run out of food, when we have climate change, people will be really upset!”
Jake Freestone, a regenerative farmer in the Cotswolds, found that his crops had some resilience to the drought as he spent years improving the soil.
“We are trying to build soil organic matter, which is like a massive sponge which can hold water in times of drought.” He says the water holding capacity increases, which then improves yield, and rain then goes into the soil instead of running off.
“We are not disturbing the soil, we direct drill into the leftovers of the preceding crop, no ploughing. What we are doing with the soil is already helping, we are getting better soil structure so the roots of the plants can get down deeper and soak up more of that 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 harvest 2022 we haven’t been as badly impacted as we feared. But my worry going forward is we should be planting crops like oil seed rape now but the ground is just too dry. They won’t be able to germinate and grow.”
These pleas come as parts of England face their driest conditions on record, with limited rainfall across the country. A heatwave is forecast this week, with several days above 30C (86F) and little to no rain.
The Met Office forecaster Tom Morgan said: “It does look like a prolonged period of dry weather, and obviously that’s bad news for southern England, where some rain would really be useful now.”
Truss and Sunak have been contacted for comment.