As 2023’s Storm Babet leaves a trail of submerged farmlands, the UK’s National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has challenged the London government’s commitment to food security. With more rain predicted this week and rivers still rising, there’s an urgent call for robust water management in the post-EU nation, which has been harshly criticised by many for its privatisation of waterways and potential divergence from strict EU-era water management directives.

The 2023 harvest season has been particularly harsh for UK farmers. Many are witnessing their future crops, which have become the costliest ever due to inflation, decaying underwater. This setback compounds the already reduced yields this year and the increased costs for fertiliser on the back of the war in Ukraine.

NFU’s stark warning

“The scenes are harrowing,” says NFU Deputy President Tom Bradshaw. “From inundated farmlands to farmers grappling with this year’s harvest and the upcoming planting season, the situation is bleak. We’re hearing heart-wrenching tales from our members about the challenges they face,” Farming UK reported him as saying.

The NFU has termed the situation a “perfect storm,” according to the report. Due to the convergence of flooding, soaring on-farm costs, and dwindling government support payments has now shifted from the EU’s CAP to the UK’s much-maligned Environmental Land Management (ELM) system. However, this isn’t a Brexit-Britain-only problem; climate change and alternative weather patterns, as now seen in eastern parts of the UK and Europe, are a generation challenge for the agricultural sector.

“Farming is on the front line of climate change, and the sector is experiencing volatility and severe weather events more often. It’s why we absolutely need a long-term plan to improve how we manage water in times of flood and drought, as we regularly experience both on an annual basis, and both severely impact our ability to produce food,” NFU Deputy President Tom Bradshaw said.

“A comprehensive water management strategy should set out how we can collaborate better with government, as well as local authorities, water companies and Environment Agency; one that allows farmers and growers to be part of the solution and take on-farm action. A strategy that prioritises food security recognising that domestic food production is part of the critical national infrastructure,” he added.

Roadmap on the issue

As part of the road map, collaboration between farmers, the government, local bodies, water corporations, and the regional environment agencies is part of the plan.

A key component of this strategy would be recognising domestic food production as a crucial national asset.

Central to this initiative is the necessity for substantial investment. The UK’s rural flood defences, drainage, and waterways, many of which are antiquated, require modern upgrades and consistent maintenance. However, these are in the hands of the private sector water companies, partly blamed by many for the insurance costs incurred. The UK government seeing the issue, has not responded quickly despite the promises over investment in the sector.

Bradshaw said the apparent disconnect between the government’s verbal affirmation of UK food security and its on-ground policies. He added the pivotal role of farming in the climate change narrative, underscoring its vulnerability to extreme weather patterns.

Continental efforts

But herein lies a broader question – with the rise in severe storms, droughts and other climatic issues across Europe, what does the future hold for food production? If Storm Babet is any indicator, the climate’s changing patterns is directly proportional to our ability to sustain ourselves.

Europe’s diverse agricultural landscapes, from the vineyards of France to the grain belts of Ukraine (which has already gone offline due to Russia’s invasion), are all feeling the brunt of climate change.

Erratic weather patterns – prolonged droughts followed by severe floods – are not just anomalies; they are becoming the new norm. This shift poses a critical threat to crop yields, soil health, and the overall stability of the food supply chain.

The consequences are far-reaching. Food security, once considered a given in most of Europe, is now at risk. The implications extend beyond just availability; they also encompass the affordability of food. As production costs rise due to damaged crops and the need for more robust infrastructure, these costs will inevitably be passed on to consumers who are already under intense pressure from price rises.

The challenge ahead is not just about adapting to the changes on a local level; it’s about proactively reimagining our agricultural systems in the face of an uncertain climate future across the continent and, despite Brexit for the UK to partner with the EU on its changes to the CAP system which has also taken a green shift in recent years along with the UK’s ELM.

Europe’s (including the UK, Norway, Ukraine and others) response to this crisis will not only shape its agricultural future. Still, it could also serve as a blueprint for how the world addresses the interlinked issues of climate change and food security. As it is not likely to improve and temperatures continue to rise.