Europe is in the midst of what could be its worst drought in 500 years, with low rainfall and record-breaking temperatures leading to parched soils and falling water levels.
“There were no other events in the past 500 [years] similar to the drought of 2018. But this year, I think, is worse,” Andrea Toreti of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre told a press conference last week. Even though rain is forecast across some of Europe this week – bringing an elevated risk of flash floods – it isn’t expected this will be enough to end the drought.
It is likely climate change is at least partly to blame, exaggerating the impact of extreme heat episodes.
These conditions are having a massive impact on food production at a time when war in Ukraine and Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea ports was already causing instability, pushing up the price of inputs from fertilisers, to feed, and energy.
“Farmers are used to dealing with the challenges extreme weather can pose and they are working hard to ensure business as usual – which means continuing to produce sustainable climate-friendly food,” National Farmers Union (NFU) Deputy President Tom Bradshaw observed. “The situation on the ground continues to be hugely challenging across all farming sectors. Many farmers are facing serious impacts ranging from running out of irrigation water to not having enough grass and having to use winter feed.”
The impact can be seen across the agricultural sector. The lack of rain has hampered grass growth, prompting worries that fodder supplies will be short this winter, placing additional costs on livestock farmers at a time when feed prices are already spiking. Rainfed crops, such as sugar beet and maize, are showing signs of stress. The irrigation required to support field veg is challenged.
The British Growers Association has warned vegetable supplies will be ‘severely disrupted’ despite a positive start to the season earlier in the year. “Volume-wise, there is going to be less crop,” British Growers CEO Jack Ward told us. “It is quite a desperate situation and growers across Europe are facing similar problems.”
Harvesting has also become problematic with sparks from combine harvesters likely to start fires in arid fields. “Stubble fields, tinder dry standing crops and parched grass have a huge risk of fires spreading should they start. We are urging visitors to rural areas to take extra care this weekend to avoid starting a fire as a dropped match or smouldering barbecue is all that’s needed to start a serious blaze. Everyone should follow the new look Countryside Code,” Bradshaw urged.
This all means that food prices, already at record levels due to surging inflation, are only going to move in one direction. Up.
Better water management is needed for food security
For British Growers’ Ward, greater investment at a farm level in water management will be needed to safeguard food security at a time of climate crisis. However, the low prices received by vegetable growers is a major barrier to such expenditure. Data from the association suggests agricultural cost inflation stands at 28% - but the retail price of produce has risen just 6.8%.
“It's got to a point where prices are unrealistically low and need to reflect the true cost of production and the need to reinvest in farms [to build resilience]… If there was money to invest, we’d see increased investment in water storage and management,” Ward claimed.
The NFU, meanwhile, wants policy levers to be used to increase resilience.
Last week, UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs George Eustice issued a statement claiming ‘we are better prepared than ever before for periods of dry weather’. Bradshaw told FoodNavigator the NFU believes a lot more can be done.
“Farming is increasingly on the frontline of climate change. UK farming has an ambition to achieve net zero by 2040 but adapting to a changing climate is important too, and the government’s National Adaptation plan published next year will be crucial to supporting adaptation on farms,” he noted.
So, what would British primary producers like to see in this key policy document?
“The current weather highlights the urgent need to underwrite our food security and for government and its agencies to better plan for and manage the nation’s water resources; prioritising water for food production alongside environmental protection. This will help build resilience into the farming sector and provide investment opportunities for irrigation equipment and to build more on-farm reservoirs,” Bradshaw noted.
“We are also calling on the Government to enable the Environment Agency to further support the industry with flexible abstraction measures that will potentially give more farmers the ability to trade volumes of water with other farmers.”
This is an approach the Environment Agency is already looking at. It has launched measures to support flexible abstraction and this will potentially give some farmers the ability to trade volumes of water with other farmers, the NFU explained.
Water stewardship issues must move up the agenda
This year’s drought has placed water stewardship in the spotlight. Fresh data from Mintel shows that consumers have become more concerned over the availability of food and water and the impact of climate change over the past year. Thirty-one percent of shoppers are worried about water shortages , compared to 27% in 2021. There has been a 5% swing in the number of people who reported fears over food shortages, a figure that rose to 23% in 2022, Mintel also noted.
“Soaring temperatures, extreme weather events and disruptions to food, water and energy supply chains have given consumers a harsh reality check, hurting their health and wallets, and activating them in the process,” Richard Cope, Mintel Senior Trends Consultant, observed.
This awareness needs to translate into action, with a focus on building more resilient water infrastructure, the NFU’s Bradshaw suggested.
“We have been calling for urgent action for a number of years to bring the nation’s water infrastructure up to date to better cope with extreme weather events such as drought. Cooperation and collaboration between farmers, government and water companies is vital in our response to managing drought risk, to protect productive farmland and ensure farmers are getting their fair share of water,” he argued.
“Significant investment in our water infrastructure is required – and a need to look at ways of how we can collect and store water when some parts have too little and others too much.”