Opinion: Modern farming can conquer weather challenges

This week, I’ve decided to push the boat out and talk about the weather – but first let’s concentrate on 17th century weather.

As centuries go, it was a bit of a stinker. It started badly with much of the global climate sent into a volcanic winter when Mount Huaynaputina blew its top in Peru.

The impact on harvests across the world was severe. For instance, by 1603 a devastating famine had reduced the population of Russia by one-third – two million died.

See also: What government must do to help flood-hit farmers

The challenging weather continued to plague food production for many years. The 1600s were the last time the English experienced famine.

Some historians say it was in 1623, following two very wet years that caused successive harvests to fail.

Others think it was in the mid-1640s when a combination of war, drought and flood caused severe food shortages. The consequences went beyond empty larders.

As is often the way, hungry people tend to rise up, which in turn causes regime change. It’s no coincidence that in 1649 the English king lost his head.


The fall-out from bad weather and failed harvests expressed itself in other ways. One of the stranger developments was a rise in witch persecution, which reached a peak in the first half of the 17th century.

Shamefully, my own county of Essex saw scores of innocent women executed. Frequently, the charge was along the lines that the women had caused animals or crops to fail through their alleged curses.

In an age when the common folk were feeling edgy about where the next square meal might be coming from, wild accusations could touch superstitious nerves.

So what has all this got to do with farming today? Firstly, I’d just like to reassure the good people of Essex that my mediocre harvest yields are more or less nothing to do with the fact Mrs Smith keeps a black cat.

But it is a reminder that throughout history when it comes to food production, the weather has the last laugh.

It’s also reminder that one of the triumphs of modern agriculture, is that it can still produce a food source in the face of adverse weather.

The severe weather that caused the failed harvests and famines in 17th century England, was no worse than the 2018 UK drought, followed by the excessive rainfall of the 2019 autumn.

In modern times, technology and farmer skill give us the ability to mitigate harvest failure. This is all the more remarkable given the increase in mouths to feed.

In England, where 500 years ago the peasantry struggled to feed five million souls, more than 50 million don’t go to bed hungry today, thanks to farming.

Similarly, the incidence of famine across the world has fallen dramatically over the last century in the face of a burgeoning population, which has increased tenfold in the last 300 years.

While it’s important to remember there are still millions who haven’t enough food, the progress of modern agriculture needs to be acknowledged and not taken for granted.

As many of the 500 million farmers across the globe battled the elements in 2019, it was the welfare and the survival of seven billion consumers that was at stake.

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