Growers should pay more to abstract water for irrigation, suggests a report which also says farming practices must change to maintain food production in the face of more extreme weather.
Failure to act threatens to undermine the UK’s ability to meet increased food demand over the coming decades, says a report by the Committee on Climate Change. Without action, there could be a significant shortfall of water for farming by the 2020s, it warns.
“Having a price for water that better reflects scarcity will provide a stronger incentive for action,” says the document. “At present, there is no relationship between water availability and the cost of water to farmers at the regional level.”
The price of water should reflect its scarcity, thereby signalling the value of water to abstractors, says the document. “As water scarcity increases, prices should rise, which in turn should drive greater efficiency in water use,” it adds.
Much UK crop production is already concentrated in water-stressed areas of southern and eastern England. In a dry year, the water shortfall in future years could be nearly half the water currently consumed by agriculture, says the report.
Report co-author Lord John Krebs said: “Our analysis shows we are putting future agricultural production at risk, jeopardising coastal habitats that provide vital flood defences, squeezing wildlife habitats and threatening billions of pounds worth of carbon stored in our peatlands.”
Agricultural demand for water may start to become elastic as prices approach £0.6/m³, the study suggests, although potato growers appear to reduce demand at lower prices of about £0.12m³. The report puts the current value of water at anything between £0.23/m³ and £1.50/m³.
The government needs to press on with water abstraction reform, so water prices reflect its scarcity, says the document. As the value of water increases, measures such as on-farm reservoirs and more efficient irrigation technology are likely to become more worthwhile financially.
Pricing water to reflect its value to users would also drive allocation of available resources to the highest-value uses, says the report. In some cases, this may result in lower agricultural consumption to free up water for other users such as water companies.
The Country Land and Business Association said farmers and land managers were acutely aware of the challenges of climate change. There were many negative effects, but landowners were in a unique position to provide solutions, said CLA president Harry Cotterell.
“More efficient use and storage of water in areas that most need it will be essential. We need to plan now, understand the risks of more frequent periods of drought and help farmers and land managers decide on investments such as building reservoirs.”