Food or Floods?

Fell Foot floods

So much has been written about the recent flooding, that I have resisted the temptation to jump in with size 12 boots; not least because, so far, we have escaped the worst of it in the south-west.

However, I read a very interesting paper from Natural Capital-finder general Prof Dieter Helm, yesterday. While I had to metaphorically hold my nose during the natural-capital-ese sections, there is quite a lot of sense in what Prof Helm says in the paper, at least in terms of the need for catchment wide approaches to flood prevention, the perverse incentives that encourage farmers to grow  flood-making crops such as Maize, and the absurd situation where moor and bogs are overgrazed and burnt, weakening their capacity to retain water during peak flood events. Para’s 19 and 20 follow:

19. Agriculture takes up most of the UK’s landmass, and it is both a major cause of increased flood risks and a major potential means to alleviate these risks. Yet agricultural policies and the associated subsidies pay little or no attention to the flood risk dimensions. Some particular examples include:

  • the much greater exposure to rapid run off from the planting of maize;
  • the soil erosion of such crops;
  • the importance of pasture and grasslands on river margins;
  • the burning and encroachments on heather moorlands;
  • and high stock grazing densities.

20. The farming practices of the upper reaches of river catchments are especially important in determining flood risk. These are also typically the most highly subsidised types of farming, with the lowest agricultural yields. Thus the costs to outputs of adapting practice are lowest, yet they have the highest benefits in reducing flood risk by holding water. They typically also have the greatest value in natural capital for recreation, leisure and biodiversity.

21.In the Somerset Levels case, the changing farming practices directly contributed to the silting of the two main rivers, and there were demands for dredging to deal with theconsequences. Upstream farming practices have contributed to the more recent flood events too.

This all eminently sensible stuff. Where Helm and I diverge (apart from the obvious Natural Capital frame) is his solution, which are publicly owned flood prevention companies operating within each catchment.

Anyway last night say an interesting debate on the flooding in Parliament – which you can read here.  Leaving aside whether Defra has or has not increased its budget for capital flood defence works and maintenance (it hasn’t) what I thought was more interesting was the number of times MPs and ministers mentioned catchment management, upstream solutions and natural flood management.

Shadow Defra Secretary Kerry McCarthy said

the natural environment [which] must be central to any efforts to reduce flooding

There were 13 mentions of catchments in the debate, compared with only 4 mentions of dredging – two of which were “appropriate dredging” and “dredging – where appropriate”. Secretary of State Liz Truss mentioned “slow the flow” as an aphorism for upstream management three times and name checked Pickering and the Somerset Flood Partnership.

But, (this is a big but), The Government is seeking to have its food production cake, while attempting to eat its upstream flood prevention. In the same debate, Truss put on her old MAFF flat cap and reassured MPs in uber farming constituencies that, as well as retaining water in catchments, the Govt will protect a million more acres of farmland from flooding by 2021.

How so? If there is a finite amount of water landing on Britain as rain, and there is a finite amount of land in Britain, then shifting it away from one place (urban areas) means shifting it towards, or indeed holding it on, another place (farmland.) Unless Truss has a secret plan to blow huge holes across England down which the water can flow into giant subterranean chambers the existence of which has been kept secret for decades, it has to go somewhere on the surface (before entering aquifers where they exist yes).

And this is where it all gets rather messy. Because today, at the Oxford Farming Conference, a certain Defra Secretary of State will announce that farmers will be given a free pass to maintain the ditches on their farmland, whenever they want to, however often they want to, at whatever depth they want to, without any interference from those busybody, red-tape swirling, clip-board wielding, bureaucrats at the Environment Agency. A couple of years ago I wrote about a personal experience of seeing a landowner “managing” watercourses running through their land, in the floodplain of the River Frome (an SSSI). This management involved removing lots of trees and scrub from along a watercourse, piling it up in May and setting fire to it. The EA made a visit but decided that there was no problem as the river itself hadnt been affected. Of course what had happened was that water would flow more quickly away from the farmland, enabling the farmer to produce more food. You can’t blame farmers for wanting to produce more food, that is what they they do.

It’s the system of incentives and regulations that help farmers determine the balance between producing food and producing all the other public benefits that land provides, including preventing downstream flooding of villages and towns, or, in the case of the River Frome, preventing excess nitrogen from farm fertiliser, from entering Poole Harbour and stuffing it as a top nature site.

By removing the regulations and leaving it to the farmers to decide when and how much ditching to do, the danger is that those other public benefits are ignored. I don’t imagine this is what Prof Helm had in mind when he wrote the paper – and it blows a huge hole in Helm’s idea of catchment flood companies co-ordinating actions across the board to prevent downstream urban flooding.

Secretary of State Truss would do well to listen to him on this.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in deregulation, Dieter Helm, farming, flooding, Kerry McCarthy, Liz Truss and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Food or Floods?

  1. Della Law says:

    Light touch regulation and perverse incentives are at the heart of many problems we face. We create the bodies to ‘regulate’ but give them no real powers to do so and no duty to protect us. No one is ever accountable.

  2. Spike says:

    As someone who worked in the NHS I was waiting for an economist to suggest a major institutional reorganisation as the solution to flooding. Didn’t take long – it’s a very British thing.

  3. Chris Uttley says:

    Here is a link to a report I project managed with the EA when I worked for CCW:

    Its called “Adapting agricultural policy to increased flood risk (LUPG01)”, and was commissioned in 2009 by the Land Use Policy Group to look at how and what changes to CAP & agricultural policy would be needed to assist farmers and landowners in making changes to help reduce flood risk. It was a part of the Pitt Review process to look at what contribution land management could make to reducing flood risk

    I think you will find some of the recommendations interesting. I tweeted a link to it a while ago. As you have found in your previous articles, there are many interesting and relevant pieces of research already out there that contain information to help make the right decisions on policy.


  4. John Kay says:

    Not forgetting “establishing a new Great British Food Unit to drive up exports.” Presumably this means creating a surplus of things we either don’t need or can’t afford on our remaining land that is dry and productive enough so that we can sell them to the Chinese.

  5. dayetucker2011 says:

    Hi Miles, it’s worth adding soil compaction to your list. Increasingly heavy machinery and increasingly heavy rainfall create compaction allowing run off from the panned surface, even of permanent grass land. Investment in aeration is as important in the West as keeping the PH right. We can do something about the machinery but not the volume of the rainfall. By simply addressing PH and aeration, it’s a win win for increased production and flood mitigation. Healthy soils.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Daye. That’s a very useful point. Soil compaction through overgrazing and use of heavy farm machinery (especially when the soil is wet) contribute to the failure of farmland soils to absorb water, as does the long term depletion of soil organic matter.

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