Flooding and Crop Failure in the UK

Preston, Lancashire.       Photo © Adam C Snape (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Rising global temperatures mean more rain – and more floods. We know that flooding is happening increasingly; even in the UK, we are already experiencing more and more huge downpours that saturate the water table and bring distress and ruin to many parts of the country. Perhaps many merely experience this as just some ‘inconvenience’ in their lives. Perhaps they consider the floods don’t affect them very much. But the fact is they do, and they surely will – both in this country and as a result of what’s happening abroad.

One of the biggest impacts of flooding, which is likely to affect us all in the very near future, thanks to global food-supply chains, is crop failure. Crop yields have been increasingly failing in recent years – both in the UK and globally. Food production in the UK and globally has been affected over the past 30 years; while the food imported to the UK from overseas represents about 45% of our consumption, our own food security is now a big issue.

Much of our food comes from European countries. According to an IPCC assessment, there is “high confidence that intense rainfall is an increasing trend in Europe, especially for winter flooding”. While here in the UK, we are “vulnerable to events at home like adverse weather. Equally, too much reliance on a few specific imports can leave a country exposed to international disruption.” This represents the dual threat to our food security as a result of increased rainfall.

There are two sides to the crop failure threat worldwide:

  • extreme flooding and

  • prolonged drought.

Increased unpredictability in the weather means that crops are damaged severely; some are either very greatly reduced or even a total loss in some countries. Globally billions of people are being affected by it. As a result, our food insecurity is likely to be both external and internal.

Climate change and its impact on crops

It’s widely recognised that global weather systems have changed drastically and continue to change for the worse. Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, is telling the truth when he declares that we are facing a climate emergency. He says, “The science is clear… we are going in the wrong direction. Our planet is broken… Humanity is waging war with nature… this is suicidal!”.

The floods happening around the world continue to increase alarmingly, due to extreme ‘wild weather’ events. These extreme weather events are occurring with higher frequency and longer duration, causing huge damage to crop-growing, even leading to total crop failure. These affect regions on the Earth in various ways, depending on locality: torrential rainfall, storm surges in coastal regions, rivers bursting banks, and islands being submerged. Deforestation, removal of vegetation and poor land management can also cause greater flood risk.

In the past few years, the lower percentages of anticipated yields here in the UK have hit some farmers very badly, due to the untimely and persistent weather conditions. In the UK, too much rain has caused much distress around the country, with many people’s houses and business premises inundated. Last year, a wet autumn drenched the soil and caused flooding in many areas, destroying or delaying crops across the country. Erosion and soil displacement from flooding can potentially ruin fields and destroy crops, as the fertile topsoil is washed away, leaving food-crop plants with nowhere to establish their roots. Sand, gravel, and rocks deposited by flood waters can also smother and destroy exposed crops.

Met Office meteorologist Aidan McGivern confirmed the UK is experiencing a changing climate, with warmer and wetter winters, and rainfall coming in heavier bursts during summers. He said the season of summer thunderstorms – like those recently seen in the southern half of the country – was likely to extend in future from spring to autumn, with heatwaves becoming more common.

Mark McCarthy, the head of the National Climate Information Centre at the Met Office echoed his findings, saying that “Climate change also increases the intensity of rainfall during the summer months. Heatwaves are followed by convective downpours. The challenge is knowing how to manage that.”

In fact, climatologists have been warning us for years about how our weather is bound to change due to global warming and climate change, with crop failure greatly increasing. How is this happening? We know that with higher global temperatures result in icecaps melting and sea levels rising. We have ever-increasing energy in the Earth’s air and ocean water systems, leading to higher evaporation, moisture content and cloud. Increased heating causes the huge rise in weather volatility – in extreme rainfall intensity – which, if prolonged, can be extremely costly to agricultural land because of delays in and reduction of crop harvest, as well as erosion removing topsoil.

A UK government website states: “If the soil is too wet, it can result in poor conditions for the crops to grow; when soil is well drained, then the oxygen, nutrients and trace elements that the plants nees are available.” Some cereal yields in the UK have decreased by 38% in 2020, due to prolonged rainfall and flooding at the usual time of sowing in the spring, with consequent low germination and prolonged and persistent heat towards summer months.

In other countries around the world, the threat of crop failure is even worse, meaning important food production worldwide has suffered greatly. For example:

  • Asia is frequently affected by floods – floods in Southern China alone have engulfed huge swathes of farmland. “Not only did the rainfall ruin crops they were about to collect, but the scale of the flooding made it impossible to salvage anything annually. We are not going to have any harvest for the entire year." - Bao Wentao’s

  • In West Java, heavy rains ruined rice crops very badly and agricultural experts warned that climate change had begun to affect food production in many parts of the country.

  • In Mozambique, in the lowlands close to the rivers, Limpopo and Zambezi, people are experiencing frequent floods, and farmers and their crops are severely affected by extreme rainfall and droughts.

  • Latin America and the Caribbean are affected mostly by floods, and to a lesser extent by drought and storms.

  • In the US, torrential rains frequently drench the fields in the Midwest, leaving sodden soil unsuitable for planting millions of acres with corn, soybeans, and other crops. Adverse and extreme weather conditions such as floods, hurricanes, hail and tornadoes mean seeds for vital crops such as corn and soybean can’t be sown. Sowing rates for corn and soybean have been greatly reduced in recent years, which many have described as the “lowest rates in history”. Some farmers end up planting nothing and declaring a total crop loss.

If we ourselves experience increased crop failure and food insecurity in future years, part of this will be because floods also impact the whole global ecosystems. But we should remember that food price increases are borne disproportionally by low-income countries, where people spend more or most of their income on food. Millions are at risk and suffering in the Global South, with crop failure cited as a leading cause of death, disease and increased migration, as subsistence farmers in particular are severely impacted by climate change and extreme weather events.