Page last updated at 12:59 GMT, Thursday, 18 June 2009 13:59 UK

Will British crops go thirsty?

Sarah Mukherjee
Environment correspondent, BBC News

Potato crop
Fenland potato farmers could be badly affected by water shortages

We are standing under endless Fenland skies. It's not yet Eight O Clock, but already the sun is warm and high.

We are surveying three fields on Duncan Worth's farm. Before us, glossy green potato plants with their scented white flowers; to the left of us, maize to be used in power generation; to the right of us, wheat.

"It's been ideal growing weather recently," Duncan says, "sunshine and the right amount of rain."

But for how much longer? The hotter, drier summers predicted by climate change scientists could have a dramatic effect on this agricultural powerhouse of a region, and the thousands of jobs that it supports.

Where will the water come from to slake the thirst of these crops?

Potatoes
Some crops, like potatoes, may have to be grown in other parts of the UK in future
Jerry Knox, Cranfield University

We're walking Duncan's fields with Dr Jerry Knox from Cranfield University, an adviser to, among others, the British Potato Council, and with Andy Brown from Anglian Water.

So will there be enough water to sustain the plants of the future in this rich, light soil?

"It's not so much a resource issue as a policy issue," says Dr Knox. "In other words, whether we want food with a low environmental footprint.

"We already import strawberries and lettuce from Southern Europe, where businesses are at risk from water shortages. We're exporting much of the problem.

"But farmers here do realise that some crops, like potatoes, may have to be grown in other parts of the UK in future."

"We're worried about water; we're not confident," says Mr Worth.

He and other farmers in the region are so concerned about the issue that they have started the Holbeach Marsh Water Transfer Project, looking at the feasibility of getting water from the River Welland to the marsh - making it accessible to agriculture.

But if projects like this proliferate in the future as water becomes more scarce, are we not robbing Peter to pay Paul?

"There's a fascinating triangle in the east of England between domestic use, agriculture and the environment," says Mr Brown.

"There are 750 sites of special scientific interest in our region, a large number of which are wetlands-based. We think we can get the balance right."

But as we finish our walk and head off for a cup of tea, all agree that it will take planning and perhaps some sacrifice to meet the many demands on the increasingly precious resource of water.



Print Sponsor


SEE ALSO
UK 'must plan' for warmer future
18 Jun 09 |  Science & Environment
Climate warnings' error margins
18 Jun 09 |  Science & Environment
Climate scenarios 'being realised'
12 Mar 09 |  Science & Environment
Climate water threat to millions
20 Oct 06 |  Science & Environment

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific