NFU claims extreme weather biggest threat to UK farming
Erratic swings from floods to heatwaves and drought caused by climate change is devastating harvests, says NFU president
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 28 July 2013 15.15 BST
National Farmers' Union president, Peter Kendall, says rewilding farmland will hit food supply. Photograph: Pagepix Ltd/NFU
Extreme weather being driven by climate change is the biggest threat to UK farming and its ability to feed the nation's growing population, according to the Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers' Union.
His comments, in an interview with the Guardian, come after a week of intense weather extremes. Last Monday, west London experienced the hottest day for seven years while on Tuesday the drought in many parts of the country came to an end with intense thunderstorms which brought almost a month of rain in a day to parts of Worcestershire. Torrential downpours also put a dampener on the first weekend of the school summer holidays, with flash-flooding in parts of the South East and the Midlands.
"The biggest uncertainty for UK agriculture is extreme weather events," said Peter Kendall, who grows wheat and barley on the 620-acre farm in Bedfordshire he runs with his brother. "I sometimes have a pop at those who say climate change is going to help farming in northern Europe: a gentle increase in temperature is fine, but extreme weather events completely stuffs farming: just look at last year. Farming is risky enough as it is."
Erratic swings from floods to heatwaves and drought in recent years have seen many harvests devastated and the UK move from being an exporter of wheat to being an importer in 2013. Scientists are clear that global warming is increasing extreme weather both in the UK and around the world.
But Kendall said that further risks lie in Europe cutting itself off from the technologies needed to deal with extreme heatwaves, floods and storms by banning pesticides and genetically modified crops, and he argued that land should not be taken out of production to help wildlife. .
"Another enormous uncertainty is, because we are a part of the rich northern European block, that we actually cut ourselves off from the technology that we need to manage those extreme weather events," Kendall said.
"Last summer was just a deluge and plant protection products [pesticides] were incredibly important to us even maintaining a pretty poor harvest: without them there would have been nothing. When you have rain after rain after rain, the level of disease that grew up within the crop was absolutely out of this world." He said Europe's decision in April to suspend the use of neonicotinoid pesticides linked to serious harm to bees, for example, was political and based on a very strict interpretation of the precautionary principle.
Reconciling the need to produce more food and to protect and restore wildlife and the natural environment is one of the big challenges of the 21st century, according to Kendall, who noted the growing populations of both the UK and the world.
"This is provocative, but if our wildlife is where it is today in 20 years time, I think that will be a pretty good achievement," he said. "If we are producing the same amount of food as we are now in 20 years time, I think that we'll have a crisis."
Kendall said farmers were working hard to plant wild flowers in field margins, put trees in field corners where their sprayers cannot reach and said he had planted 12km (7.5miles) of hedgerows on his farm in the past 15 years.
Although an unprecedented stocktake of UK wildlife in May revealed most species are struggling, Kendall said: "As I travel around, I see a fantastic British countryside and I do not accept that the countryside and environment is going to hell in a handcart."
The idea of rewilding farmland to improve wildlife does not stack up, according to Kendall. "We need to be very careful in taking land out of production. Who is going to make up the shortfall? Where are we going to get the food from? We have just had three global food price spikes in the last five years."
A high-profile recent study concluded that farmers were shortchanging the taxpayers who fund their subsidies by billions of pounds because the money did little to support the wildlife, access the countryside and other environmental benefits that people value. But Kendall said: "I think helping farmers manage volatility, extreme weather, climate change and the global distortion of agricultural markets is equally a public good. The danger of saying that the environment is the only public good, is that we pay people not to farm and that really does fly in the face of feeding 63m people here in the UK."
He added: "No one has the perfect solution to this. But farmers have a massively vested interest in making sure we don't damage our natural resources for the long term. Farmers just aren't in the smash and grab business: farming is a long term game."
Kendall said he could not defend £3bn in annual subsidies that UK farmers receive from taxpayers. The four farms that make up his family business receive about £140,000 a year in subsidies, but he said all farmers would prefer a system where the market provided a fair return and subsidies were not paid.
"The question of public value for money for the £3bn in subsidies is an incredibly difficult question, because I am only too aware, and I say this to my farmers all the time, that there is a lot of Britain having a really tough time, with pay freezes and job losses. So I don't even try and justify the £3bn," he said. "We want to get to a place where farmers depend less and less on taxpayers money."
Kendall said that, despite the huge challenges for UK agriculture, he was optimistic about the future and is seeing more young people come into farming. "It will be an incredibly difficult challenge on this very crowded island, but we are always going to need food."
Despite the challenges, Kendall says he is a happy farmer. "I woke up this morning and right outside my door the hay is being made and the smell of the crops was in the air. I am very aware that I live an incredibly privileged existence as a farmer," he said. "And we want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."
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