With most of England and parts of Wales now in drought and with experts predicting that drought conditions could persist into summer next year if insufficient rainfall is seen this winter, farmers have issued a warning that fruit and vegetable supplies could be at risk.
Concerns were raised about the UK food supply chain at a national drought meeting, with leaked slides seen by the Observer noting that: “If reservoirs cannot be filled during the winter 2022/23, which it is felt could be a possibility, this would have serious implications for businesses, the supply chains and those employed within them.
“Confidence is needed by the sector to have access to water to enable cropping plans to be enacted. Where confidence is not available, cropping rotations are being reviewed and reductions in areas of irrigated crops/water hungry crops are being undertaken.”
The government recently announced that the drought in England is likely to continue for many months, which will see further restrictions considered on water usage and consumption, the Guardian reports.
Although September did see typical amounts of rainfall for the time of year, it was insufficient to refill reservoirs and dampen the soil following this year’s incredibly dry summer. In order to bring the country out of drought, above-average rainfall would need to be seen consistently during autumn and winter, which experts believe is unlikely to happen.
The nation’s reservoirs are now at exceptionally low levels, with just one major reservoir currently assessed as being at normal water level for the time of year.
Deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union Tom Bradshaw said: “As the irrigation season is coming to a close and attention is turned to winter abstraction for storage reservoir fill, we have been working with the Environment Agency to further support the industry through these challenging times, with flexible abstraction measures being provided.
“However, more needs to be done to provide short-term certainty that water will be available for food production for the next growing season.”
Food security & the water crisis
Water is absolutely essential for shoring up food security, with resources required for both crops and livestock, and large quantities necessary for irrigation and the different production processes involved. In fact, irrigation is accountable for nigh-on 70 per cent of all freshwater resources designated for human use, according to the UN.
Population growth will put increasing amounts of pressure on global freshwater supplies as time goes on, with numbers predicted to rise to 8.3 billion by 2030 and 9.1 billion by 2050. Naturally, food demand will increase in line with this and it’s expected that this will rise by 50 per cent by 2030 and 70 per cent by 2050.
Changes in diet have had a big impact on water consumption over the last 30 years or so, with different products requiring differing amounts of water. A kilo of beef, for example, uses up around 15,000 litres, while a kilo of rice needs around 3,500 litres of water to produce. And a single cup of coffee uses up approximately 140 litres.
Water management in agriculture has also had environmental impacts, driving large-scale changes in local ecosystems and undermining the provision of various ecosystem services.
To help tackle the situation, investment in innovative technologies will be necessary, as the UN explains. This will help to produce more nutritious food while using less water and ensure greener and more sustainable food production.
Measures could be taken to improve crop yields, make irrigation more efficient, find smarter ways to use fertiliser and water, and implement reuse of draining water and other resources of marginal quality.
Recent research from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), published in 2020, warned that water shortages are now affecting over three billion people worldwide, with the amount of freshwater resources available per capita dropping by a fifth over the course of 20 years.
Approximately 1.5 billion people are now facing severe water scarcity and drought because of climate breakdown, increased demand for supplies and water mismanagement, all of which have converged to make agriculture increasingly difficult to operate across much of the world.
At the time, director-general Qu Dongyu of the FAO observed: “We must take very seriously both water scarcity (the imbalance between supply and demand for freshwater resources) and water shortages (reflected in inadequate rainfall patterns) for they are now the reality we all live with. Water shortages and scarcity in agriculture must be addressed immediately and boldly.”
Where England is concerned, National Farmers Union president Minette Batters recently called on the government to set out its water security plan, which she believes is an issue currently being neglected by politicians.
Speaking to the Guardian, she called for emergency water plans to be set out to tackle “immoral wastage”, explaining that it will be impossible to deliver a resilient food system if resilient water infrastructure isn’t in place first.
Ms Batters went on to say: “It amazes me how much we take food for granted and we take water so for granted until it’s running short and then we start panicking about hosepipe bans. We need a radical rethink on how we maintain our precious supplies.”
For businesses across all sectors and in all industries, the good news is that there’s a lot that can be done to reduce water usage and consumption to help make a significant difference to supply availability.
Having a water audit carried out across your site is a great first step to take, as this will reveal any weak and vulnerable areas where you might be wasting water.
Once you’ve identified these, you can then consider which water-saving solutions are most appropriate for you.