Last December DEFRA published its latest set of statistics concerning farming in England. The Report on crop areas in 2000 and 2010 can be downloaded here and the full dataset for English Counties can be downloaded here.
Using the DEFRA data, you can dig into the detail at a county level.
Between 2000 and 2013 the area of maize cultivated in Devon rose from 8708ha to 16,423ha – an 89% increase
For comparison the figures for Somerset are 8993ha grown in 2000 rising to 15,347ha in 2013 – a 71% increase
For Cornwall 3671ha was grown in 2000 rising to 6997ha in 2013 – a 91% increase.
So nationally maize growing has increased by 50% but in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset the increases are well above the national average.
Indeed Dieter Helm, the Chair of DEFRA’s Natural Capital Committee said the following:
Agriculture takes up most of the UK’s landmass, and it is both a major cause of increased flood risks and a major potential means to alleviate these risks. Yet agricultural policies and the associated subsidies pay little or no attention to the flood risk dimensions. Some particular examples include: the much greater exposure to rapid run off from the planting of maize; the soil erosion of such crops; the importance of pasture and grasslands on river margins; the burning and encroachments on heather moorlands; and high stock grazing densities.
A couple of days ago my friend Miles King published another blog on maize – More Maize Madness: Far from being a climate change panacea, producing Biogas helps intensify its consequences – it is well worth a read.
Yesterday Liz Truss, the Environment Secretary, told the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs Select Committee of MPs that a scheme rolled out in Somerset which allows the local authority to increase tax rates to pay for preventative flood measures is “a very good model”.
This seems to be completely the wrong approach and sets a dangerous precedent. It would appear that those who suffer from the flooding pick up the bill for trying to prevent it whilst those whose farming practices appear to be implicated do not. The flooding in the Somerset Levels in 2014 is thought to be have caused in part by rapid runoff from the surrounding hills as a result of farming practices including the cultivation of maize – see here for example. I am also certain that the albeit much more localised flooding that has occurred this winter in parts of East Devon is being caused in part by the rapid expansion of the cultivation of maize in the area (predominantly for biogas).
It is clear that more will have to be spent of flood prevention measures in the future and that money will have to come from somewhere but lets not just spend money on more hard defences before we have the inevitably difficult conversations around land use – particularly the cultivation and expansion of maize.