Should we be farming on floodplains?

By Donna Eastlake

- Last updated on GMT

Should we be farming on floodplains? GettyImages/fotoVoyager
Should we be farming on floodplains? GettyImages/fotoVoyager

Related tags Flooding Floodplains farming Agriculture Sustainability Food security

Countries across Europe are increasingly using floodplains for farming. We look at the risks and rewards of this approach.

Whether you agree or disagree with it, the rising global population means a rising demand for food, making farming on floodplains an essential part of future food security. But what are the pros of this farming approach and, more importantly, how bad are the cons?

What are the benefits to farming on floodplains?

This might come as a surprise, but there are actually some benefits to farming on floodplains. The first of these being that it can actually help to prevent against flooding, both across the farm, and in the surrounding areas.

“Farmers can protect their land from floods by planting trees, changing their crop types, or restoring riparian vegetation,” said a spokesperson for the US Department of Agriculture. “Such measures can help lessen flooding impacts on farmlands as well as downstream areas.”

However, the time of year that crops are planted is essential.

“Planting winter crops on floodplains or areas earmarked for water storage will likely lead to crop losses and major financial penalties,” said a spokesperson for the Nature Friendly Farming Network.

Flooded farmland - GettyImages-bunsview
Some farmer have been using their farmland to hold flood waters, in order to help prevent the flooding of towns and villages further downstream. GettyImages/bunsview

Moreover, some farmers are also helping to support their local communities by using their land to store floodwater when flooding does occur.

“Many farmers offer their services to protect nearby towns and villages by holding floodwater on their farms, at a cost to their businesses,” Rachel Hallos, vice president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), told FoodNavigator. “Flood storage must be recognised as a public good and farmers must be fairly compensated for this service. Agreements should be in place to allow farmers to plan effectively and ensure recovery procedures are available, and it's essential that flood storage areas are agreed upon, rather than be assumed, to avoid putting extra financial strain on farm businesses after every flood.”

And environmental groups support this approach.

“Flood plains are essential for water storage, acting as natural buffers and reducing impacts of flooding downstream,” Vicki Hird, strategic lead on agriculture at The Wildlife Trusts, told FoodNavigator.

Farming on floodplains also allows farmers to benefit from nutrient-rich soil. The reason for this is that formation of a floodplain on a valley floor is caused by the river flowing through the valley. The river channel naturally meanders through the landscape and over time deposits sand, silt and other soil-forming material, especially during floods. These deposits provide fertile soil for agricultural production.

Flooded farm - GettyImages-JJ Gouin
One of the major downsides to farming on floodplains is, of course, the risk of flood waters damaging crops. GettyImages/JJ Gouin

What are the downsides to farming on floodplains?

The main downside to farming on floodplains is the inevitable risk of crop loss from flooding. This year, farms across Europe have suffered damage as a result of severe flooding, with wheat, barley and vegetable farmers, reporting significant losses. And it’s not just agricultural farming affected. Livestock farmers have also been negatively impacted, with the loss of the use of grazing land for their animals.

Another downside to farming on floodplains is the potential damage to habitats, leading to biodiversity loss.

“The importance of our floodplain farmland cannot be overstated,” says the NFU’s Rachel Hallos. “Not only is this land crucial for food production, but also for supporting the vital environmental benefits and ecosystems farmland can provide.”

Flooded farmland - sunset - GettyImages-Andrew Holt
Should we be farming on floodplains? GettyImages/Andrew Holt

The future of farming on floodplains

The practice of farming on floodplains is likely to increase over time, as the global population continues to rise, so supporting farmers in the adoption of sustainable farming practices is essential.

"Flood plains have a critical role to play in the future of farming, especially in terms of climate adaptation and lessening effects of extreme weather on communities,” explains The Wildlife Trusts’ Vicki Hird. “Farmers should be supported to improve management of floodplains, some of which have been so far altered for drainage and development that they no longer function as before. Current supports for improving floodplains are largely inadequate or missing from programmes."

“We need a clear plan and the right financial resources from government to help prepare, adapt and recover from our changing climate, both in the long- and short-term, so that we can continue to produce food and care for the countryside,” agrees the NFU’s Rachel Hallos.

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