A killing on potatoes, setting the back garden on fire, five varieties of quinoa and what do we mean by ‘treated’ water anyway? : A day at Harper Adams



Last week the DRY project was joined by members of the farming community and related organisations at Harper Adams University to discuss drought risk, water management and drought tolerant crops for the agriculture/horticulture sectors. Professor Lindsey Mcewen (UWE) kicked off the day by giving an overview of the project and asking the room what their memories were of the 1976 drought and whether they had any more recent drought memories. Several individuals responded with anecdotes about the amount of money that some potato farmers were able to make due to the hot, dry summers whilst also recalling the physical memory of slogging away in the mud to harvest once the rains that broke the drought set in. Another recollection involved an overgrown garden of tall dried grass and an over-enthusiastic father who set it alight and narrowly avoided setting the house on fire! Cracked tarmac on the roads was also mentioned. More recent droughts were also discussed, including 1983 and the ‘nearly’ drought of 2012, which an NFU member recalled the government was very concerned about.

Following this, Ragab Ragab from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology reported on the hydrological modelling they are conducting, with a particular focus on the implications for farming. He shared some striking visuals. A series of three maps of the UK showed the increasing water stress and subsequently increasing crop water requirement from now up to 2050, whilst a world map highlighted the international perspective on water stress and food security; the countries we import our food from are some of the most drought vulnerable areas. Members of the audience pointed out that such maps paint a worrying picture for north-south global inequalities into the future in terms of who will be able to grow and supply food. Ragab gave many examples of approaches used all over the world to increase water supply and improve water use efficiency by crops which the audience found really informative and prompted the question: why aren’t UK farmers more open to learning from examples in other parts of the world?


After lunch, Ivan Grove (Harper Adams) took us outside to see the crop ‘mesocosms’ (small scale experiments) where they are trialling different types of typically grown UK crops and alternatives under water stress situations. Ivan showed us all the high tech kit required to monitor soil moisture, moisture in the air, and water uptake at different levels by the plants. We all tried out the thermal camera too, which suggests how much water is leaving the plant; the plant gets hotter when it is stressed and short of water. Treatments such as with an anti-transparent coating also help to reduce the water loss by stopping evaporation and also have an impact on cooling. Ivan’s experiments, after the initial year, are showing some expected and unexpected results – supposedly drought tolerant crops like quinoa are not looking that much better off than something like wheat. A quinoa expert in the group agreed that it took particular situations for quinoa to prove more resistant to drought than other crops (when different treatments are considered). However, Ragab mentioned quinoa has different varieties with different drought tolerance. Selection of the right variety is paramount to match the drought severity level.

To finish up for the day, we discussed what the implications of the day were for the farming/horticulture communities. As we have found in discussions within our catchments, the conversation soon turned to the difficult economic situation facing the farmers and, therefore, their risk aversion. Drought was also discussed in terms of uncertainty and the lack of impetus to tip farmers over into more pro-active (rather than reactive) responses to water conservation or drought-vulnerable practices. Challenging consumer demand, changing cultural habits related to food and diet, and limitations of working within the food industry in the UK were other issues brought up, although whether the consumer was really represented by the big supermarket players who interact with the farmer was also questioned. The difference between ‘myths’ and reality in relation to treated water, farming assurance and domestic use were also challenged, making the day a really important starting point for thinking about and responding to complex relationships for drought risk, global economies and UK food security. There was concluding discussion about the role of narrative in sharing local knowledge, and the differences between fact and public perception in water management and drought risk decision-making.

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