Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by National Farmers' Union


  The National Farmers Union (NFU) welcomes this opportunity to submit evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee's inquiry into climate change and water security, flooding and related issues. The NFU represents the business interests and policy concerns of farmers and growers in England and Wales and in discussions with all tiers of Government. Farming is critically dependent on the climate and climatic variation, not to mention secure access to water resources. Climate change could present significant threats to UK farmers in terms of water security but also opportunities for UK farmers to explore new and different prospects for their businesses. Our evidence focuses on issues of relevance to agriculture and the farming community.


  1.  The effects of climate change on the availability of water resources and security of supply is a concern for British farmers and growers. Resources in many areas are becoming increasingly stressed due to greater demands from all sectors in society. The importance of a reliable and secure supply of water to the agricultural industry cannot be overstated. The survival of the industry and indeed the rural economy is dependent on this vital resource.

  2.  The NFU believe that new sources of water should be developed only as a complement to the more efficient and effective use of current resources. However, if additional sources are deemed necessary, the NFU supports increased groundwater abstraction under the correct environmental conditions and the increased use of poor or bad quality water. We do not believe that water transfers should be considered as an additional resource.

  3.  The impacts of climate change on resource management will be very significant. Already farmers and growers are undertaking a number of water saving measures to improve water efficiency and conservation on farm. With assistance from government these measures would become more widespread, thus limiting the impact of climate change on the rural economy.

  4.  Unlike other abstractors irrigators are subject to restrictions on water use during dry periods. This already has negative implications for farm businesses which will only be exacerbated by climate change. Support from government for winter storage reservoirs would not only alleviate this problem but also ease the pressure on resources during summer months, save on water charges and contribute to improved biodiversity on farm.

  5.  Agriculture has the potential to make a contribution to flood mitigation through land management and the recreation of riparian wetlands. However, if these options are not adequately financed or funded offering security to the farmer they will fail to have a significant impact.

Whether existing water supplies are adequate and what additional sources of water might be needed?

  6.  The NFU believes that instead of considering the issue of whether water supplies are adequate and what additional sources of water might be needed, the focus of attention should be on how responsible water use can be encouraged. In addition we believe that new water resources should be developed only as a complement to more efficient and effective use. The current and future prosperity of agriculture depends on access to resources and where possible the NFU believes that requirements should be met through better management and an increased focus on efficiency and conservation.

  7.  When considering the development of new resources the environment is a key concern. Abstraction of groundwater in circumstances in which replenishment of the aquifer cannot sustain the rate of abstraction is a concern for farmers and growers and can impact on the protected rights of other abstractors. Unless it can be shown that abstraction posses minimal risk to soil and water conditions in the catchment and will not result in lasting effects on the water table, this additional source should not be considered. It is therefore vital to consider the nature and scale of proposals when considering new groundwater developments.

  8.  We do not consider the transfer of water from distant areas where it is surplus to areas where it is in deficit to be a viable additional source of water. We would question how compatible this option is with the Catchment Abstraction Management Strategy (CAMS) process. For example, how would CAMS take account of the water lost or gained in catchments and what would additional supplies mean for the classification of catchments based on water availability. Furthermore, the Environment Agency has recently consulted on developing a water rights trading market in England and Wales. This consultation proposed that trading should occur only within catchments or where a hydrological link could be established. Transfer of water from areas of surplus where there is no link is not only in conflict with but may undermine the principles on which the trading process is based. In addition, the NFU believe that there are too many uncertainties associated with transfer schemes, in particular is the issue of how water quality will be protected.

  9.  If additional sources of water are deemed to be necessary we believe that the best option is to focus resources on using poor or bad quality water. The issue of water quality and quantity are inextricably linked and efforts should be made to improve the quality of some resources as a means of increasing the quantity available to water users. As public water supply is the single biggest water user, the onus should be on water companies to treat bad quality water and thus gain access to further resources.

What will be the impact on resource management (and particularly the need for changes in irrigation and water conservation for agriculture)?

  10.  The combined impact of climate change and the increased need for water for the environment, housing and business purposes will result in increased pressure on resources in the future. It is vital therefore that improvements in water efficiency and resource management are made by all water stakeholders—we all have a role to play in conserving water and must strive to become more "water wise".

  11.  Farmers and growers have a good water efficiency record that is continually improving. When we consider that farmers use less than 5% of the nation's water supplies and produce over 70% of the nation's total food requirements, we can see that efficiency is a principal concern. However, it is vital to ensure that agriculture continues to make the best possible use of water resources already available to it. The NFU is committed to this aim and has promoted the efficient and responsible use of water amongst its members through its Waterwise campaign and its sponsorship of the Environment Agency Water Efficiency Awards.

  12.  Recognition of the importance of water has prompted a number of farmers and growers to significantly improve efficiency measure taken on farm. These measures include:

    —  Technical improvements—advanced irrigation equipment, computer based scheduling systems, nozzles which ensure uniform rate of application to the soil.

    —  Trickle irrigation.

    —  Spraying at night to reduce evaporation losses.

    —  Recycling.

    —  Separation of dirty and clean water.

    —  Collection of rainwater.

    —  Water audits.

  However, these measures need to be more widespread and support from government is necessary. The Government needs to acknowledge the constraints on the industry in terms of cost and lack of knowledge about the most appropriate water efficiency measures to take. It is vital that agriculture is working in partnership with government and other stakeholders and that it is provided with the necessary tools to improve resource management in the face of climate change.

  13.  The importance of a reliable supply of water to agriculture and horticulture cannot be overstated. The reliability of this supply will become even more vital as the effects of climate change; unpredictable weather patterns, varying rainfall distribution throughout the year and potential seasonal shortfalls, become more prevalent. When water is scarce the Environment Agency can—at very short notice—restrict or ban the abstraction of water for irrigation, or impose conditions on when irrigation can take place. Restrictions on irrigation can have catastrophic impacts on agricultural and horticultural businesses not to mention those engaged in related activities such as packaging, transport and retailing. Without a secure supply of water farmers cannot meet the increasingly high quantity and quality standards required by supermarket contracts and the public. Interrupted or restricted supplies may also impact on the health, hygiene and welfare conditions of livestock. As a result, the UK's competitive position in the market place may be compromised by imports.

  14.  An important means by which farmers could make maximum use of resources is through storage of surplus water during the winter months. The NFU, amongst other stakeholders is calling from support from government for on-farm winter storage. There are numerous benefits to on-farm storage—not least a reduction in the pressure on resources in summer. At present however the obstacles facing farmers and growers in installing on-farm reservoirs are simply too difficult for many to overcome. Planning permission and cost are the principal constraints but the move by the Agency to time limit licences has left many uncertain if abstraction licences to fill reservoirs will be renewed—making return on investment difficult to predict. Support for winter storage in the form of grant in aid and reduced bureaucracy would ensure availability and security of water supply to the industry, thus helping to reduce the impacts of climate change on the whole of society.

The implications for flood management, investment in mitigation measures and for wider policy such as planning?

  15.  In much of the lowlands UK agriculture depends on the provision and maintenance of effective flood and coastal defence systems. It is estimated that 60% of grade 1 agricultural land is at risk from flooding (ODPM, Planning policy Guidance 25: Development and Flood Risk). Following the floods of Autumn 2000 farmers suffered substantial losses due to damage of existing crops and prevention of drilling for the next season. An increase in the intensity and frequency of flooding and extreme rainfall events as a result of climate change is therefore of significant importance to the farming community.

  16.  The implications of climate change for flood management are significant. The uncertainty associated with climate change and particularly the increase in frequency of extreme events may render current flood defence schemes and systems ineffective. More robust flood management systems will therefore be required to use innovative measures to protect land and the public and move towards systems that work with rather than against the forces of climate change.

  17.  Agriculture and land management could make a significant contribution to a reduction in the flood risk caused by climate change. Farmers and growers are the principal land managers in the country and manage the land and the soil in a way which maintains its long-term ability to provide its vital function in agriculture. However, with additional management measures farmland's interception capacity can be significantly increased, thus contributing to flood mitigation. Measures taken by farmers that have a positive impact on flood management include:

    —  Cultivation practice.

    —  Improving in-field drainage.

    —  Reducing run off through the use of contoured hedgerows and other buffer vegetation strips.

    —  Introducing grass into arable rotations or maintaining areas of permanent grassland.

    —  Woodland planting.

    —  Recreation of riparian washlands and wetlands.

  The recreation of riparian wetlands on farms is not only a potential flood defence option but can act to desynchronise farm run-off, increase aquifer recharge, act as a barrier to diffuse pollution and result in biodiversity benefits.

  18.  Although farmers and growers are in a position positively to contribute to the mitigation of flood defence, there is a common obstacle to these measures—investment. One of the main barriers to flood protection measures is the inflexibility of current funding mechanisms. Compensation and payment for alternative beneficial land use is allowed in only a limited set of circumstances. This often means that many schemes that landowners could contribute to are unable to due to a lack of financial viability. Agri-environment schemes have been unsuccessful as a means of unlocking wash land and managed realignment as an option for farmers. For most the payments on offer are simply too low to offer a fair return for the capital loss of land value whilst also offering a secure income stream in the long term eg 30-50 years. It may be that what is required is a capital payment to reflect the decline in land value and an ongoing payment to reflect the fact that the land will require some sort of care and maintenance. This could be achieved by a tender scheme where farmers are invited to submit bids for reverting land for the particular use that the public wants to make of it. Recreation of riparian wetlands on farmland, although of potentially significant benefit needs to be rigorously assessed as a policy option. It should be considered only with the full participation of the farming community, to ensure long term sustainability of the solution and to ensure that adequate funding was in place.

  19.  Current Government policy is such that there is no statutory duty to build or maintain flood defences and existing policies give rural coastal and flood defence schemes a low priority. There is a certain irony in the fact that if there is a "Habitats Directive" designated site near or on agricultural land, it will be given a higher priority of flood defence, due to the commitment that the Government has to protect these sites. The NFU believe that as current knowledge on flood protection option is not fully developed, hard engineering options still need to be funded as a mean of protecting land from the effects of flooding.

  20.  It is important that when planning flood management we consider the longevity of solutions and not simply aim to solve present day problems. There needs to be a strategic approach, which not only considers agriculture but also urban areas. Planning policy and the planning system has traditionally not taken sufficient account of flooding issues and must increasingly consider the huge positive and negative impacts it can have on flooding and flood mitigation.

Ways in which the impact of changes in water availability on biodiversity can be minimised.

  21.  Clearly many aspects of climate change and its impact of water availability will have consequences for biodiversity. However, not all of these need be negative. The use of winter water storage could provide valuable extra wetland habitat in areas previously without such habitats (as well as reducing the negative impacts of excessive water use during the summer months). Similarly we would expect that measures to improve the resilience of farmland to the effect of extreme events (such as a higher standard of soil management) would also benefit biodiversity in the form of reduced diffuse agricultural pollution in surface waters.

  22.  Wetland features on farm are in general nurtured by farmers and growers who realise that streams, ponds and rivers are invaluable habitats for wildlife. These features also enhance on-farm biodiversity and contribute to the abundance of wildlife that makes our countryside so distinctive.

National Farmers' Union

April 2004

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