The practice of irrigation has soared in importance since the 1976 drought, when it was something few farmers did. In the coming years, it will become even more critical to farmers.
Today, irrigated agriculture and horticulture form an integral part of the farmed economy – particularly in the Midlands, East Anglia and south-east England – covering some 150,000ha and more than 1,000 agri-businesses.
These are businesses large and small, employing many thousands of people whose jobs depend on irrigation that produces high-quality fruit and vegetables for the nation’s wholesalers, supermarkets and food service sectors.
See also: So you want to… build a reservoir?
About the author
Melvyn Kay is executive secretary of the UK Irrigation Association, whose annual conference – Are you ready for the next drought? – takes place on 1 March in Peterborough. For details, visit www.ukia.org.
Outside agriculture, few people realise crops need lots of water to grow and produce marketable yields.
A typical UK diet requires a staggering 2,400 litres a person a day – much more than the 140 litres a person a day needed for public water supply.
Fortunately, most UK crops rely on natural rainfall in what is generally perceived to be a “wet” country. But our rainfall varies significantly geographically – both seasonally and annually.
Demand for water
Some regions are, of course, much drier than others. In parts of East Anglia, supplemental irrigation has become essential to increase crops yields and meet quality assurance standards for processors and retailers.
Crops grown under glass and in polytunnels have also fuelled demand for water. But concerns are growing over who should get what, with competition increasing among other water-dependent sectors, too.
Hotter, drier summers – including the agricultural drought in summer 2022 – reduce water availability, and increasing water demand will only heighten concerns about the reliability of future supplies for irrigated agriculture.
During periods of water shortage, domestic use, industry and the environment always take precedence over agriculture.
Coupled with climate uncertainties, therefore, are uncertainties about changes in the way water will be allocated in future.
This is driven by the Environment Act 2021, which rightly seeks to ensure catchments are sustainable, particularly those that are already seen as over-abstracted and may incur environmental damage in the future.
Some farmers have already had their licences revoked or reduced. More of such limitations are expected to follow.
The key stumbling point appears to be defining environmental damage and, in the absence of a clear definition, assessments are based on the “precautionary principle”.
In its simplest form, this means that if someone “thinks” abstraction for irrigation may cause damage then it should be curtailed or stopped.
In the light of this, it is unsurprising that farmers are reluctant to invest in irrigation infrastructure for the long term.
Droughts, water scarcity, and administrative issues together threaten not just the sustainability of irrigated farming but also the livelihoods of many thousands of people in both rural and urban settings.
The latter does not seem to be an issue where the environment is concerned, even when the mantra is water for people, industry and the environment. Where do people fit into this balance beyond public water supply?
So should we continue to irrigate crops? It is a good question. Unlike in arid countries where there is little or no rainfall, there is no God-given right to irrigate in any part of the UK. Government considers irrigation to be a commercial risk.
Growers must therefore decide their course of action within the established regulations.
But what if farmers decide not to irrigate crops because of a lack of water, high energy and fertiliser prices, and lack of seasonal labour?
Decisions like these take the debate into how much food we should grow domestically as a nation – and how much we should import, including from countries where water is even more scarce than it is in the UK.
This is a political decision rather than a simple commercial choice – a decision beyond the scope of individual farmers, growers and food producers.
It also raises the issues of food security and self-sufficiency.
No surprise, then, that there are strong arguments being made by various farming organisations to have water for food production added to the list of “essential water users” alongside the public water supply and the environment.