flooded field crops

There has been an inescapable theme on my WhatsApp feed this winter: pictures of British farms underwater. Not only has this been a disaster for our farmers, it could spell disaster for our nation’s food security.

Following last year’s drought, we’ve had a terribly wet winter, including the wettest February since the 1800s. It’s resulted in crops being destroyed by floods, or becoming vulnerable to disease. Farmers are unable to do anything about it, because tractors cannot work on wet ground without permanently damaging soil. 

So domestic yields will be down and, as supermarkets know after recent supply shocks, when nothing is grown, there’s nothing to buy. 

While we may not be able to wield tridents to halt the rain or command the storms, there is, perhaps, an alternative that’s just as miraculous: healthy soil. Just one teaspoon has more micro-organisms than there are humans on Earth.

Healthy soil, rich with carbon, can absorb water like a sponge. Rothamsted recently found that on an area the size of a football pitch, a mere 1% increase in soil carbon could absorb 250,000 litres of additional water – enough to fill more than four swimming pools. 

Healthy soil has always been agriculture’s unsung hero, mitigating droughts and floods, while providing a network through which crops can absorb the goodness underpinning our food’s nutritional value. 

And this brings us to the roots of the crisis. A run of wild weather is rapidly exposing the unforeseen consequences of how farmers have been encouraged to approach food production for decades. According to the Environment Agency, chemicals and cultivation have depleted UK soils of 40%-60% of their carbon. 

It’s been said the farmer protests sweeping Europe are down to a tension between food production and environmental stewardship. But it’s a false tension: without healthy soil, there’s no food. Food can’t exist outside nature. So let’s not force farmers to choose.

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Government must ensure farms are supported in a transition towards food production that works with nature, and to its credit, government is actively listening and revising funding schemes. While brilliant farmers the world over have restored soil health and harnessed natural systems to grow nutritious, abundant and resilient crops, make no mistake: it’s a big change for farm businesses rooted in tradition, with every reason to be risk-averse.

Some farmers will choose rapid change, others will opt for evolution. But every transition will require knowledge sharing, planning and community support. And this isn’t the responsibility of farmers or government alone. It requires nothing short of a collaboration across the entire food system, from farm to fork. 

At Wildfarmed, we’re finding there’s a strong appetite for field to plate networks that support farmers to deliver a future of nature-rich landscapes and abundant, affordable food. M&S, Ask Italian and Franco Manca are among the companies who are joining this growing movement for change. 

Sometimes, we’re asked if we can “afford” to change the way food is produced Britain. But business as usual provides no alternative. In the past three years of unpredictable weather, only half of UK wheat grown for milling has met milling requirements, a 30% drop on the average. 

This is a nightmare for farmers, who are already managing price volatility on shoestring margins. Meanwhile, after a winter with our farms underwater, Brexit regulations are about to make it harder to import food from abroad.  

Wild weather is here to stay. And the effects are not restricted to sodden fields miles from urban supermarkets – they’ll hit consumers directly.

Both farmers and retailers will need to get ready for a paradigm shift in how we grow more resilient crops. It makes environmental and economic sense. In fact, the two are fast becoming one and the same.