Lack of Rain Could Cause Food Prices to Rise
Published: 17 May 2011
Britain should prepare for a drought this summer and crops have already been "irreversibly" damaged by this year's warm weather, the Environment Secretary disclosed last night.
Caroline Spelman said that water companies' drought preparations are being reviewed as several areas of the country are already "water stressed".
She met with farm leaders yesterday who have warned the Government that this year's food harvest will be earlier and the yield lower. The situation could force up food prices even higher, farming experts warned, with the price of vegetables particularly likely to be affected later this year.
According to the latest inflation figures from the Office for National Statistics, food prices are already 4 per cent higher than a year ago.
England and Wales has recorded the lowest rainfall in March and April since 1938 with the warmest spring in centuries. The water levels in some rivers are already being compared to those during the record drought of 1976.
In some eastern counties just 5mm of water has fallen since the end of February.
Last night, Mrs Spelman admitted that the dry weather has caused "irreversible" damage on agriculture but insisted "we don't have a drought yet".
"Yes this has already impacted on agriculture and some of the damage is irreversible," she said. "The harvest will be earlier and the yield will be lower."
Jenny Bashford, the water policy adviser at the National Farmers Union, who was at the meeting, said: "It may be shaping up to be as dry as 1976, but we are in a better position than we were back then. We are more water resilient, the water companies have more reservoirs."
She said it was too early to say what the economic impact would be, but non-irrigated crops, such as wheat, barley and oilseed rape were already suffering. In Norfolk, farmers have started to irrigate cereal crops in a bid to mitigate losses. But using water on cereals so early is a gamble, because it means there will be less water available for potatoes and vegetables later.
Each farmer who waters his crops has a licence which forbids them to use more water than a specified amount in a given year.
Jeremy Boxall, the commercial manager of Linking Environment and Farming, an organisation that has 2,400 farmers as members, pointed out that most cereal crops were traded on a global market, and millers could buy their wheat from Ukraine or Canada if there was a shortage of supply in Britain.
But he added: "The issue is shallow-rooted horticultural crops: cauliflowers, leeks, potatoes, some fruit.
"The problem is that they could run out of water later in the year, causing problems not just for crops in the ground now, but for the ones yet to be sown. I'm pretty sure vegetable prices will go up.
They must do, especially as most are grown in eastern and southern England, the worst hit by the dry weather."
Mrs Spelman: "We're not talking about 1976, no, and as I said we aren't technically in a drought. It's dry. Some parts of the country are worst affected.
"The Midlands where I come from is an area which is more water-stressed. The traditional very dry parts of the country like East Anglia are this time better placed."
She added: "Everyone has a role to play to make sure we are prepared. It is dry but we don't have a drought yet. Some parts of the country are more water-stressed than others.
"The most important thing is to get everybody together so we are prepared, and the water companies' drought plans are reviewed so we are as resilient as we can be."
The Environment Agency will be reporting next week on the likelihood of a drought in the longer term, and how it might affect farmers, food production and consumers, including whether there will be a hosepipe ban in any areas. Last year, the north west, including the Lake District, suffered from a ban.
Michael Lawrence, a forecaster at the Met Office, said average temperatures for the month so far are 2.1C (3.78F) above the long term average of around 10C (51.8F), making the month one of the hottest on record so far.
The hottest May on record is 1833 when the average was 15.1C (59.2F).
Rainfall is also below average in some areas with the south east receiving just 20 per cent of average rainfall so far, although in north west Scotland more than the total average rainfall has fallen for the month.
"The chances of temperatures in May being above average are high," he said. "The chances are the South East will be higher than average."
Over the next few days the country will be divided with rain and cooler temperatures in the north west but continued warm weather in the south east.
A band of rain will cross the south east on Wednesday, although rainfall is expected to be light unless there are thundery showers later in the week.
Maximum temperatures will rise from the late teens to mid twenties by the end of the week.
The warm weather is expected to continue through the rest of the month but forecasts of rain are more uncertain with unsettled conditions meaning there could be significant downpours.
Courtesy of The Telegraph - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/agriculture/farming/8517376/Lack-of-rain-already-causing-crop-failures-Defra-warns.html