The UK’s Muddy Fields Are Latest Climate Threat to Food Security

(Bloomberg) -- From tractors stuck in muddy paddocks to raw sewage washing up from clogged waterways, extreme rain and flooding have wreaked havoc on British farmers this year. The soggy and turbulent weather — exacerbated by climate change — has stunted their ability to provide homegrown crops for bread, beer and nearly every grocery aisle.

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Britain has seen its sixth wettest spring since records began in 1836, according to the Met Office. The outcome has devastated fields for growing grains like wheat and barley, which the UK usually produces to levels that can mostly meet domestic needs. The unseasonable conditions have also delayed supplies of British strawberries and even led to the death of livestock.

As a result, the UK will become 8% less self-sufficient for food this year — meaning it will need to ramp up imports, according to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit think tank. The potential for this adding to food price inflation is a reminder of the growing threat climate change poses to the UK economy.

For crops like potatoes, “we are seeing shrinkflation in the supermarkets as they try and keep pricing the same,” says Harry Campbell, a fruit and vegetable analyst at commodity data firm Mintec. Campbell says procurement companies are looking elsewhere to shore up supplies of impacted crops and using contracts to mitigate risk, but their goal is to “make a profit and so it will eventually be passed down to the consumer if the situation is not improved with the weather.”

After volatile commodity prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fueled a cost-of-living crisis across the world, countries have begun to assess how to limit their exposure to global supply chains. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs last month introduced the UK's first ever food security index, finding food supply was “broadly stable” but wet weather had “potentially significant impacts” on the domestic production of some crops. Around 60% of the food eaten by Britons is grown domestically, a number that the government is desperately seeking to boost.

The UK’s ruling Conservative party, which is polling dismally ahead of a general election in July, has been looking to avoid more bad news and gain support among voters — including those in agricultural communities. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak launched a £50 million ($64 million) flood support scheme for farmers in April, but for many of them the relief won’t help with this year’s crops.

Flooded Farms

Farmer Henry Ward was only able to begin work on his farm in Lincoln, England on June 4 — after its fields were destroyed by floods that hit twice in six months.

Ward’s Short Ferry Farm usually supplies wheat for breadmaker Warburtons and spring barley to brewers Coors and Budweiser. Ward missed out on planting in March because the fields didn’t dry in time. “We are then losing out on over a £100,000 worth of revenue from crops that we should be harvesting,” he says from inside the grain store whose supplies are slowly running out.

Across the 200 acres of Short Ferry Farm, only one survived the floodwater: a green patch in a field with a cracked surface that looks as though it experienced a drought. Ironically, however, the thick crust was created by water pressure. It smells rotten, and Ward compares its appearance to a crème brûlée. Underneath there is a gooey, oxygen-starved mess that will struggle to grow crops without cultivation.

It’s not just grains being hit by unseasonable weather. British-grown strawberries appeared in supermarkets two weeks later than usual due to dull and cool weather and Scottish-grown broccoli may materialize later than expected too.

Livestock has also struggled with the weather. Around 15% of Ward’s lambs were stillborn after Short Ferry Farm had to evacuate heavily pregnant ewes.

This year’s heavy rains are the latest climate twist for British agriculture. In 2022, the UK experienced its worst period of drought in almost 50 years. Reservoirs ran dry, while crops shriveled.

Helen Hooker, a research scientist in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, says the UK will be hit particularly hard by these trends. “Our winters are likely to continue to become wetter,” she says. “And in the summer we’ll see more of these very heavy showers.”

Problems Compounded

Britain will have imported 60% more wheat this season than the year before to shore up supplies, according to forecasts from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.

Still, it is a challenge to find a supplier in Europe that isn’t being impacted by extreme conditions. Soggy fields are limiting crop planting in France. Unseasonable cold snaps and droughts have hit Black Sea grain growth. Germany flooded earlier this month.

It may leave the country having to look further afield to Canada for quality wheat, says Tom Molnar the CEO of London-based bakery Gail’s, which has primarily sourced from British producers in the past six years. UK prices for wheat have continued to climb even as the costs of the crops elsewhere have been rolling back from this year’s peak.

Molnar says companies that produce bread on a large scale may be hit harder by rising grain costs than more upscale shops like Gail’s.

Other risks faced by the UK supply chain may lie in the hands of private companies controlling the nation’s creaking water infrastructure. Storm overflows designed to help cope with intense periods of rain are old and increasingly flooded by water companies with sewage, resulting in public health warnings to avoid swimming in streams and even boil water before use in one area.

“The sewage companies are getting away with murder,” says Ben Cooper, a farmer in Wiltshire who saw human waste flowing into his front yard. Cooper also planted crops later than usual, and in rushing to do work trapped a tractor in a muddy field.

The flooding at Short Ferry Farm was exacerbated by clogged natural waterways, which need debris dredged from the riverbed. While the Environment Agency paid £3 million to repair the riverbank on the border of the property after a 2019 flood, it unfortunately did not prevent the latest round of destruction.

The Future of Food

Henry Ward expects it will take up to four years for the land on his farm to recover enough to produce the yields they did before flooding. The sole acre of wheat, underdeveloped and filled with weeds after they couldn’t be treated with herbicides, will be removed and replaced with a mix of kale, sunflower and triticale for winter bird feed. Ward says he won’t be able to begin producing food until at least March 2025.

British arable farmers have begun a campaign to highlight the plight of this year’s harvest, asking the next government to introduce new policies aimed at domestic production and environmental protection. Some farming communities, meanwhile, are considering their own climate hacks to handle extreme weather.

After surviving two major floods since he took over the land in 2019, Ward and his neighbors have now proposed to the environment agency and ministers that they use their land to help manage the water system in Lincoln, rather than battling the unpredictable elements each year.

“We could sacrifice this land to store flood water on it and turn it into a nature reserve,” Ward says. “By sacrificing, I don’t know, 500 acres here, we could hopefully protect a lot of people’s houses and maybe protect thousands of acres further downstream to produce food.”

These reserves of water may prove useful next time drought hits — but less land for growing could ultimately hurt the UK’s efforts to increase domestic food supplies. It’s all part of the messy future the UK faces as it tries to adapt to a fast changing climate.

“It’s gonna break my heart,” Ward says while watching the cultivator prepare the land for the bird feed. “That [land] should be growing food. I just feel like we’re sort of admitting defeat.”

--With assistance from Olivia Rudgard.

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