To control flood - and drought - we must involve farmers

| 2nd January 2015
A farmer at work on his tractor amid oilseed rape (canola) in Oakwood, Derbyshire, England. Photo: John Bennett via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
A farmer at work on his tractor amid oilseed rape (canola) in Oakwood, Derbyshire, England. Photo: John Bennett via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Building resilience to flood and drought is all about working with farmers, writes Colin Tudge. Simple things like ploughing across slopes, not up and down them, planting trees, and caring for soils, can make a huge difference in helping rainwater to sink into the ground, not run off. And to make it happen, the government must take a lead.
Here is another instance where governments are required to govern: to do what obviously needs doing on behalf of the society they were elected to serve, and on behalf of humanity and the biosphere as a whole.

Simple arithmetic tells us that a few tweaks in farming could make a huge difference to Britain's ability to cope with flood - and with the droughts we could be facing in a few months' time.

Thus, the catchment area that picks up the rain is likely to be at least a thousand times larger than the area on which all that water is finally dumped.

So one inch of rain on the surrounding hills becomes 1,000 inches - more than 80 feet - in the river, or in the High Street if the river can't cope.

Catastrophes are rare only because the rain doesn't fall all at once, and by the time the last drop has fallen the water that fell first has already been safely drained away. So the total amount is obviously important - six inches of rain over the catchment is harder to cope with than one inch.

But timing matters just as much: how quickly, or slowly, the water flows from the hills to the drains to the river and so to the sea. If the water that falls on the hills takes a day to drain away, as opposed to one hour - or a week rather than a day - then the rivers would probably cope.

Much of the catchment that funnels the water into the rivers is likely to be farmland - and farmers can do a very great deal to stem the flow, and to buy time. In fact they, rather than civil engineers (or the inexhaustible sand-bags that David Cameron has offered, or the emergency services and the army whom he has cause to praise so fulsomely) could almost certainly make the greatest contribution of all. By far.

They can do this in four main ways:

1. Planting

Deep-rooting perennial plants in general hold more water for longer than annuals, so here is another good reason to follow the lead of Britain's Pasture-Fed Livestock Association and raise animals on home-grown pasture rather than on home-grown cereal or (still less!) on imported cereal and soya.

PFLA members are showing that this can be done - cattle and sheep on 100% pasture, and pigs and poultry on more than is generally supposed. The best water-catchers of all, though, are trees.

Once (and in some countries, still) it was standard practice to plant trees at the tops of hills to stem the flow of water from the top and to prevent erosion. Trees stop at least some of the rain from reaching the ground at all: they catch it on their leaves and some of it then evaporates away. The rain that does reach the ground is in part transpired away. In any case, they certainly slow the run-off.

Trees (and hedgerows) are even more helpful when planted in rows or in narrow copses along the contours. Ideally they should then be integrated into the farming system as a whole to become a true exercize in agroforestry. This all seems obvious. But while much of the world including the EU has been promoting agroforestry, Defra has not.

2. Cultivation: ground-cover and contours

It helps, too, a lot, if fields are never left bare, and if the land is ploughed at all it should be around the contours rather than up and down (see photo, right).

I seem to remember learning that in O-level geography. The rationale is that countour-ploughing holds rainfall in the furrows where it can infiltrate down into the subsoil without eroding the field - in all but the heaviest of rainfall.

Up and down ploughing achieves the precise reverse: when it rains rivulets of water cascade down the slope along the furrows, carrying soil, seed and nutrients to the bottom of the hill.

But in much of Britain, up and down ploughing is the norm - for the simple reason that it's harder to do it that way, never mind the tens or hundreds of tonnes of topsoil that may be washed away.

3. Topography

Chinese and South East Asian farmers hold millions of tonnes of monsoon rain on hillsides and mountain sides by terracing - paddy fields in the sky.

We don't grow rice in Britain but the principle can still be applied. Swales (barriers) can be made along the contours with straw-bales or logs or stones covered in earth. It may be possible to create ponds, sometimes permanent ponds, on the upward side - good for wildlife, and a reserve against future drought.

4. Soil structure

Last but certainly not least, the soil can be made more spongy, able to hold far more water, just by increasing the organic content - which of course has many other advantages too. Plants find it easier to establish their roots and extend root systems in well structured soils. And the soils will be richer in nutrients and invertebrate life from earthworms to soil fungi.

No more business as usual! No more governance as usual!

So should we blame the farmers for the floods? Occasionally, perhaps, but in general, absolutely not. Like all working people they are hard-pressed to make a living and often cannot afford the kinds of changes that are needed. It costs a lot to introduce significant agroforestry, and to convert to organic. If farms are to do what needs doing, society as a whole must bear at least some of the cost.

Here indeed is yet another instance where governments are required to govern: to do what obviously needs doing on behalf of the society they were elected to serve, and on behalf of humanity and the biosphere as a whole.

But the general strategy of all British governments of all parties since about 1980 has been to leave the country's affairs to the market which means that power is ceded to the corporates, especially the transnationals, who play the market most adroitly; and to the banks, who lend the money (or, to be accurate, have been given the right to deem that the money has been lent, and to demand pay-back with interest).

Government strategy in agriculture as in all things has been to offer the corporates and banks the opportunity to fill their boots. Corporates have little or nothing to gain from agroforestry or organic farming, but big engineering companies can make a killing by building dams and ramparts. So if anything at all is done, that is what will be done.

To control floods we need a different approach to farming. Sir John Beddington in his Foresight report of 2011 on The Future of Food and Farming said "we cannot continue with business as usual."

Even more to the point, we cannot continue with governance as usual. Truly the world's affairs need re-thinking from first principles.



Colin Tudge is (with Ruth West and Graham Harvey) a co-founder of the Oxford Real Farming Conference and writes at the Campaign for Real Farming. He will be speaking at the 2016 Oxford Real Farming Conference next week.

The 2016 Oxford Real Farming Conference will be held in Oxford Town Hall on 6th & 7th January. View the programme, get a flavour of the event from previous years by watching the film (in embed, above), or exploring past conferences. Book your tickets for either of both days here.

Twitter: @OFRC


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here