Memorandum submitted by the Environment Agency (SFS 69)

 

 

SUMMARY

 

The UK agriculture and food sector has faced many challenges over the years and has evolved to meet them. Dealing with the effects of climate change and the sector's ability to maximise food production without compromising the environment will be key to the provision of secure food supplies up to 2050. The challenges are substantial and include:

 

Adapting to changing weather patterns, rainfall distribution, quantity and storminess.

Protecting natural resources including biodiversity, soil quality and carbon content.

Adapting to sea level rise in coastal areas.

Increased flooding of land.

The use of land management approaches such as flood storage areas to minimise the flooding of households.

Contributing to the objectives of the Water Framework Directive in terms of water quantity and quality, adapting to reduced quantities of available water in many areas;

Adapting crop types to fit changing climatic conditions.

Achieving a low carbon agriculture and food sector.

 

RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS

 

Q1. How robust is the current UK food system? What are its main strengths and weaknesses?

 

Almost three quarters of land in England and Wales is used for food production and the agricultural sector has demonstrated strength, adaptability and resilience over time. This provides a sound basis for the future.

 

Strengths

The ability of the sector to adapt to changing economic signals and external pressures and to innovate when required.

Its continued production, processing and distribution of food despite uncontrollable factors such as weather.

Agricultural land provides environmental benefits such as being a major sink for carbon, rural landscapes and wildlife habitats. It forms a major part of the catchment for ground and surface water resources. The value of this is estimated to be around 1.5bn per annum[1].

It is probable that the sector will respond to the necessity of change. With climate change bringing stormier and different weather patterns and changes in water availability and use there will be a need for land use and cropping patterns and crop types to change.

 

Weaknesses

The UK food system has potentially negative impacts on the environment which need to be carefully managed. Some past damage, caused substantially by efficient response to the economic drivers of EU and UK agricultural polices, needs to be rectified or contained. These external costs, estimated as between 1 and 3 billion p.a. (O'Neill op cit), cannot easily be recovered.

Possible negative outcomes include soil degradation, biodiversity loss, water pollution, unsustainable use of water for irrigation and the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) from livestock, land, food processing and distribution. The whole food chain is responsible for around 18% of UK GHG emissions.

If the natural soil and water systems that underpin agricultural production are degraded and dysfunctional, food production will be compromised.

Agricultural production is frequently dependent on artificial nitrogen and phosphorus inputs, which are derived from non-renewable resources.

UK agriculture will need to adapt to a 'low carbon' future, using less inputs from fossil fuel. This applies along the food system and will require innovation and support.

 

Q2. How well placed is the UK to make the most of its opportunities in responding to the challenge of increasing global food production by 50% by 2030 and doubling it by 2050, while ensuring that such production is sustainable?

 

Despite its physical limitations, the UK does have the capacity to increase its food production through increasing inputs and bringing more land into production. The availability of water could become a major constraint in some areas. Careful management will be required to ensure that this expansion is not to the detriment of soil and water quality and biodiversity.

 

As the Common Agricultural Policy becomes progressively more market orientated, UK farmers will respond to consumer demands efficiently. We want to see environmental costs and benefits properly valued and accounted for as food production increases.

 

Q3. In particular, what are the challenges the UK faces in relation to the following aspects of the supply side of the food system:

 

3a. Soil quality

Good quality soils with robust structure are essential to delivering sustainable food production. Their high quality needs to be maintained.

 

Impacts of intensification. Increased use of pesticides and cultivation pose a risk to soil biota, soil organic matter and the structure of soils.

Use of marginal land. Marginal land is often where shallower, poorly drained and more vulnerable soils are found, often with high wildlife and biodiversity value. Agricultural expansion should not compromise this vulnerability through overexploitation. In some situations these areas may be important for flood risk management.

Waste disposal. The application of certain wastes to land has many agricultural benefits as well as manageable risks. Changing management practices for biodegradable wastes mean more organic material is being returned to land as soil conditioner.

 

3b. Water availability

The UK is facing significant pressure on its water resources. The changing distribution of rainfall, its intensity and quantity are already issues which we have highlighted in recent publications.[2]

 

The agriculture sector uses water for irrigation, principally in south and east England and often at times when water resources are particularly scarce.

 

Demand for irrigation water is likely to increase across much of England and Wales over the next 10 years, possibly by 25% by 2020, especially for vegetable production. By 2050 irrigation needs could be similar to those of southern Europe and may become a limiting factor for increased production.

 

Fluvial and coastal flooding and flood management affects UK farming and food production. Approximately 1.3m hectares (ha) of farmland in England are within flood plains, including over half of the most productive land[3]. About 60,000ha of agricultural land in England and Wales are protected through flood risk management and effective drainage.

 

Farmers will need to be imaginative in the way they deploy water tolerant crops in areas prone to flooding or used for flood storage schemes. 12,000ha of flood storage areas have been created in 180 locations, not only providing the important function of storing excess water but also slowing down flood peaks and protecting other areas from flooding.

 

3c. The marine environment

The Environment Agency has very limited locus over the management of commercial fish stocks in the marine environment and we have no comment to make.

 

The effects of climate change, sea level rise and coastal erosion are felt in coastal agricultural areas. The Environment Agency's investment programme in flood defences is highly prioritised and some difficult decisions sometimes have to be made that could result in the withdrawal of maintenance in some coastal areas where primarily agricultural land is affected.

 

In time this could ultimately result in the overtopping of defences or loss of land. However, the area of agricultural coastal land lost since 1991 through deliberate managed realignment in England is about 1,000ha. This is similar to the area of land taken by residential development each year[4].

 

3d. The science base

Global and UK food production will have to increase to support increased population. Science will have an important role to play in leading the adaptation to climate change[5] and ensuring that inappropriate intensification does not cause unacceptable consequences such as extensive soil, water and wildlife degradation.

 

Government support for appropriately targeted and diverse agricultural research programmes and measures is necessary. The UK has already committed 400m for agricultural research over the next five years. Wider land use and food policy should consider the interventions necessary to overcome obstacles to sustainable food production. The overall environmental impacts including emissions and resource use for different crops, animal husbandry and food production needs to be stabled.

 

3e. The way in which land is farmed and managed

Achieving a balance between the need to produce food, sustain viable businesses and protect the environment from further damage is crucial to the long term outcome. A secure agricultural system is one that is much less dependent on artificial fertiliser and that manages soil and water resources so that they are conserved for the future. Such practices are not yet truly embedded into farming policy, funding and land management.

 

There are five key areas where good land management practice is fundamental to achieving this balance.

 

Issues related to soil management, such as depth and direction of ploughing, overwintering of bare ground or winter crops, panning through use of heavy machinery, damage to soil structure and erosion. We work closely with the sector in providing practical help and advice on how to manage these issues.

 

Water use. We commented earlier on the issue of water availability (3b). It presents a serious challenge to the way agriculture develops in England over the next decades.

 

The use of nitrate and phosphate fertilisers, pesticides and other inputs. Many rivers in England and Wales do not currently meet good ecological status in the draft classifications for the Water Framework Directive (WFD). Of the rivers that are in less than good status, 72% or 30,000 km of river are at either high or moderate risk due to phosphorus from agriculture. Our current monitoring shows many groundwaters have excessive nitrate levels which require expensive, energy intensive treatment when abstracted for drinking water. Agriculture is a significant contributor to the diffuse pollution of waterbodies.

 

Climate change, crop type and the ability of land to sequester carbon. Nitrous oxide and methane emissions from agriculture are responsible for 7% of UK GHG emissions. To meet the UK's target of reducing emissions by 80% by 2050 (against 1990 levels), agriculture will have to deliver significant cuts.

 

Land has a great ability to sequester (absorb) carbon in soil and crops. The significance and scale of this is only just becoming apparent and research is being carried out to understand better the extent and opportunities this presents. This will make a very significant contribution to the adaptation to climate change.

 

Cropping patterns and crop types have already changed over the last two decades, due partly to plant breeding and to warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons. For example, maize is commonly grown in southern England and brings particular problems of land and fertiliser management.

 

Managing floods, coastal erosion, withdrawal from maintenance of flood defences. This was addressed in 3c.

 

3f. The provision of training

This requires investment and careful focus on the required outcomes to be fully effective. Encouraging compliance through support and delivery of advice so farmers understand their regulatory obligations is required by Regulators' Compliance Code.

 

Industry-led initiatives such as the Pesticide Voluntary Initiative raise levels of environmental awareness and hence improve farm practices. The Defra-funded England Catchment Sensitive Farming Delivery Initiative is demonstrating that by working in partnership with farmers, awareness of diffuse agricultural pollution has significantly improved, thereby contributing towards delivering the objectives of the Water Framework Directive.

 

The environment agencies' jointly funded NetRegs website and waste training tool for agriculture has now been expanded to cover the food and drink manufacturing sector. We intend to include a wider range of training support on other essential environmental issues such as pollution prevention and water conservation.

 

3g. Trade barriers

No comment.

 

Q4. What trends are likely to emerge on the demand side of the food system in the UK, in terms of consumer taste and habit, and what will be their main effect? What use could be made of local food networks?

No comment.

 

Q5. What role should Defra play both in ensuring that the strengths of the UK food system are maintained and in addressing the weaknesses that have been identified? What leadership and assistance should Defra provide to the food industry?

 

We believe Defra should prioritise three policy areas to promote a robust agricultural sector and an increasingly secure food system.

 

Environment and resource protection and efficiency of use. Defra should encourage initiatives that improve the resource efficiency and environmental performance of both agriculture and the food and drink manufacturing sector. A more integrated approach to water and soil management is necessary as well as further improvements in resource efficiency and reductions in the carbon, water and waste intensity of food production systems.

 

Reduce GHG emissions from farming, food production and distribution and promote climate change adaptation in agriculture. Defra can help to provide the practical knowledge to take forward the Committee on Climate Change recommendation that Government focuses on developing a policy framework to reduce significantly emissions in the agricultural sector.

 

Sustainable consumption. One third of food bought for domestic consumption in the UK is thrown away. Promoting sustainable consumption, cutting food waste and adopting more sustainable diets and supply chains is important in ensuring future food security. Government needs to show leadership in this difficult area of public policy. The overall environmental impacts of different food types need to be explained. When food waste cannot be reduced directly, anaerobic digestion and composting that prevent the land-filling of waste should be supported.

 

Q6. How well does Defra engage with other relevant departments across Government, and with European and international bodies, on food policy and the regulatory framework for the food supply chain? Is there a coherent cross-Government food strategy?

No comment.

 

Q7. What criteria should Defra use to monitor how well the UK is doing in responding to the challenge of doubling global food production by 2050 while ensuring that such production is sustainable?

 

Criteria in addition to existing measurements such as trends in nitrate levels in groundwaters could include:

 

Water consumption: e.g. decrease in unit volume per tonne of product.

GHG emissions: tracking reduction; progress towards low carbon production.

Resource efficiency: including food wastage; reduction of food wasted against 2008 levels.

Increase in agricultural research expenditure and take up of more sustainable agricultural farming methods.

The overall environmental impact of food production as a function of the change in the mix of food types being consumed.

 

FEBRUARY 2009

 



[1] O'Neill D (2007) The total external environmental costs and benefits of agriculture in the UK. Environment Agency report, 24th April 2007.

[2] Environment Agency (2008) Water Resources in England and Wales - current state and future pressures & Environment Agency (2008) Climate change and river flows in 2050s. Science summary SC070079/SS1.

[3] [3] Environment Agency (2008) Best Farming Practice.

[4] Communities and Local Government (2007) Land Use Change Statistics England.

[5] Science 1 February 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5863, pp. 580 - 581