Farming vs flood protection: why we need to get the balance right

This post is by conservationist and blogger Miles King. A version first appeared on his blog.

So much has been written about the recent flooding that I have resisted the temptation to jump in with size 12 boots; not least because, so far, we have escaped the worst of it in the south west.

The need for a radical rethink

However, this week I read Professor Dieter Helm’s call for a radical rethink of flood defence. I had to metaphorically hold my nose during the natural capital-ese sections, but there is quite a lot of sense in what he says. He highlights the need for catchment wide approaches to flood prevention, the perverse incentives that encourage farmers to grow flood-making crops such as maize, and the absurd situation where moor and bogs are overgrazed and burnt, weakening their capacity to retain water during peak flood events.

The paper states:
“Agriculture takes up most of the UK’s landmass, and it is both a major cause of increased flood risks and a major potential means to alleviate these risks. Yet agricultural policies and the associated subsidies pay little or no attention to the flood risk dimensions. Some particular examples include:

  • the much greater exposure to rapid run off from the planting of maize;
  • the soil erosion of such crops;
  • the importance of pasture and grasslands on river margins;
  • the burning and encroachments on heather moorlands;
  • and high stock grazing densities.

The farming practices of the upper reaches of river catchments are especially important in determining flood risk. These are also typically the most highly subsidised types of farming, with the lowest agricultural yields. Thus the costs to outputs of adapting practice are lowest, yet they have the highest benefits in reducing flood risk by holding water. They typically also have the greatest value in natural capital for recreation, leisure and biodiversity.

In the Somerset Levels case, the changing farming practices directly contributed to the silting of the two main rivers, and there were demands for dredging to deal with the consequences. Upstream farming practices have contributed to the more recent flood events too.”

This week there has also been an interesting debate on the flooding in parliament.  Leaving aside whether Defra has or has not increased its budget for capital flood defence works and maintenance (it hasn’t) what was more interesting was the number of times MPs and ministers mentioned catchment management, upstream solutions and natural flood management. For instance shadow Defra secretary of state Kerry McCarthy stated that “the natural environment [which] must be central to any efforts to reduce flooding”.

There were 13 mentions of catchments in the debate, compared with only four mentions of dredging, two of which referred to “appropriate dredging” and “dredging – where appropriate”. Secretary of State Liz Truss mentioned “slow the flow” as a euphemism for upstream management three times and name checked Pickering and the Somerset Flood Partnership.

We need to get the food production vs flood defence balance right 
But – and this is a big but – the government is seeking to have its food production cake, while attempting to eat its upstream flood prevention. In the same debate, Truss put on her old MAFF flat cap and reassured MPs in big farming constituencies that, as well as retaining water in catchments, the government will protect a million more acres of farmland from flooding by 2021.  But how can this be possible? Water has to go somewhere. If there is a finite amount of water landing on Britain as rain and a finite amount of land in Britain, then shifting it away from one place (urban areas) means shifting it towards or, indeed, holding it on another place (farmland).

And this is where it all gets rather messy. Liz Truss has announced this week that farmers will be given a free pass to maintain the ditches on their farmland, however they want to without any interference from the Environment Agency. To illustrate why this is a problem, a couple of years ago I wrote about a landowner managing their land, in the floodplain of the River Frome, an SSSI, by removing trees and scrub from along a watercourse and setting fire to it. The Environment Agency considered that the river had not been affected. But, as the water flowed more quickly away from the farmland, the farmer had been able to produce more food. And you can’t blame farmers for doing that.

The issue is the system of incentives and regulations that help farmers to determine the balance between producing food and producing all the other public benefits that land provides. These benefits include preventing downstream flooding of villages and towns or, as in the River Frome case, preventing excess nitrogen from fertiliser entering Poole Harbour and damaging a top nature site.

By removing the regulations and leaving it to the farmers to decide when and how much ditching to do, the danger is that the other public benefits are ignored. I don’t imagine this is what Professor Helm had in mind when he wrote the paper, and it blows a hole in his solution to have catchment flood companies co-ordinating actions across the board to prevent downstream urban flooding. Liz Truss would do well to listen to him.


  • Richard Benyon, among others, is trying to kill the nonsense from someone in Somerset saying that ‘….dredging works because we haven’t flooded this time’. Examination of rainfall records and personal experience has it that there’s been relatively low rainfall in the south. Up north, another suggested that Pickering, where they have introduced upstream holding measures, didn’t flood because they had low rain; locals beg to differ. This desperate ‘dredging works’ nonsense combined with wrong statements about rain is confusing people and government ministers.

  • Pingback: The story of the voles, the ditch and the prime minister | green alliance blog

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