We all need to eat and growing food takes water. Rain doesn’t always fall in the quantities and places it’s needed, so for high value horticultural crops rainfall is supplemented by water abstracted from waterways and reservoirs.
Overall agricultural water use is low compared to other sectors. However, the use peaks in June and July overlap with public demand peaks. As the UK’s population continues to grow, including in areas which already face water scarcity such as the South East of England, domestic water demand increases, impacting on how much water will be available for other uses like agriculture. Population growth also adds the challenge of increasing production to feed more people. We could of course import more food, reducing the amount of water required to grow as much domestically. However, scarcity issues also affect many other countries. Importing may cause environmental and social issues in those areas, adding an ethical dimension to the decision.
Recognising pressures on our water bodies, and so on aquatic habitats, last November the Environment Agency announced its plan for abstraction reform. The three-pronged plan will:
Careless land management causes water pollution. This diffuse pollution is most commonly caused by activities such as: manure, fertiliser and pesticide applications in poor conditions; cultivations that leave ground exposed for long periods, creating a soil erosion risk if weather becomes wet; and some livestock grazing, for example where animals have free access to streams.
Combined, these activities are resulting in a big problem. “More than 50% of nitrate pollution, 25% of phosphate in UK waters and 75% of sediment pollution comes from farming” according to DEFRA. This contributes to Water Framework Directive (WFD) failures, affects the quality of water that may be abstracted for drinking and causes issues for aquatic ecology through toxicity, nutrient enrichment, deoxygenation and siltation.
Nearly a third of WFD failures are attributed to agriculture and land management.
This doesn’t paint a very good picture of agriculture. But fear not, it doesn’t reflect the full reality; many farmers are water protectors.
The new Farming Rules for Water, which came into force 2nd April, are a positive step for water quality. Although the eight rules are very similar to provisions we’ve had under cross compliance they are regulations and so apply to all farmers regardless of whether they claim the Basic Payment. It is reassuring to know that these rules are now in place to provide basic protection when CAP requirements are withdrawn following Brexit.
It’s even more reassuring for the environment that DEFRA see the rules as “a first step towards a new approach to regulating the agriculture sector” indicating that the protection afforded by these rules might yet be strengthened in future.
As a key ask of the future of land management regime we want to see the polluter pays principle applied more strongly. This requires enforcement of regulation to give a baseline. For it to be fair, we also need to see; farmers supported by market incomes, good access to advice and market recognition of added value where it’s created.
Payment for additional benefits-
As we shift towards a public money for public goods approach, the new land management system should deliver environmental benefit. Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) also has an important and growing role to play in delivering water quality benefits.
We are increasingly seeing water companies and farmers working together for the benefit of both. Water companies are an obvious purchaser of water quality benefits because reducing the need for processing allows them to make a clear cost saving.
There’s great potential for the PES approach to be rolled out further to deliver multiple benefits to wider groups of purchasers. However, there are several barriers yet to be overcome. We’ve asked that the Government support development of PES, as a potential long-term funding mechanism for environmental benefit, as you can see in my previous blog.
In summary, agriculture will continue to be an important water user as the population grows and we look to address our food security, particularly in the wake of Brexit with trade uncertainty. It is increasingly being recognised that farmers and land managers have huge potential to deliver water benefits through sustainable management of the natural capital they hold, as well as the potential to cause damage. Going forward it will be key that our regulations are enforced, and our farmers have the knowledge and funds to make management choices that provide additional environmental benefit.
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