Few at the National Farmer Union's (NFU's) Centenary Conference in February can have failed to notice that food security has become the mantra of the moment. The dominant question was how farming will cope with the 21st century challenges of an expanding global population, climate change and public expectation. The primary product of Britain's farms, food, is once again considered important by politicians after a decade or more when food security was a term that could not be raised without public ridicule. The NFU's campaign Why Farming Matters could not be more opportune.
Yet farmers suffering under last summer's floods may have been forgiven for thinking that food security is not a concern for those protecting our land. In June and July last summer over 42,000ha of farmland suffered prolonged flooding with disruption for the whole food supply chain.
When farmers and growers read that Environment Agency chief executive Barbara Young thinks that "the Norfolk Broads will go", as quoted in NCE, they are rightly confused and concerned. Where does protecting our best and most versatile land fall on the Agency's scale?
Looking 30 to 50 years ahead, as the Government's Foresight Land Use Project is expected to do, are we really sure that the UK can buy all it wants from global food markets? The NFU believes that to protect our most productive soils is a wise strategic choice. When one considers that these same soils are also in some of the lowest lying areas, the impact of a short term view is clear. Some 57% of Grade 1 agricultural land is below the 5m contour and 38% of English vegetables are sourced from the Fens.
The choice on the coastline is if anything more stark. Salt and food production are poor bed fellows. So when the country debates "managed retreat" or loss of coastal habitats, at what cost will this be to our productive capacity, and our environment?
Farmers accept that we cannot simply build higher and higher flood defences. Should these fail, the damage would be catastrophic. Instead we are arguing for managing flood risk, whether from salt water or freshwater. Treat farmers as full partners in flood defence schemes and release their ingenuity to develop multiple benefit approaches. More important still: give a proper long term value to farmland, especially that which is the best the country possesses.
The East Anglia NFU team is working on a project called Managing Coastal Change: Helping Essex landowners to adapt. The project team works with farmers to identify if there are economic options for them to help manage the coastline, whilst continuing with a viable business and also continue productive farming behind the realignment scheme.
The important conclusion of this project is that managing coastlines brings many positive benefits.
This is so different from what is being proposed on some parts of the coast where abandonment seems to be the preferred (and low cost) option – the result of short term vision that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
-Andrew Clark is the NFU's head of policy services