Water, water everywhere and food for thought too

WATER. There seems to have been a lot of it about so far this year.

Suffolk squelches underfoot every time I take the dog out. There appears to be a lake beside the A12 in Essex where I’m sure it used to be dry land.

Our screens have been awash with images of flooding from Australia to Brazil, Pakistan to Sri Lanka.

So why am I worrying about a water shortage?

Aside from the odd hosepipe ban in an unusually hot summer, it’s not something we tend much to think about in green, rainy Britain.

But next time you pick up a pack of tomatoes at the supermarket, take a moment to see where they were grown.

Not so long ago they were most likely to have been flown in from Spain. Now the chances are high they’ve come from Morocco. Not a country renowned for its fertile farmlands.

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You might think this shift is just another instance of the globalised economy. But there’s a practical reason for it too. And it’s a rather disturbing one.

For years a large area of south-eastern Spain has been under glass – square miles of greenhousing providing the supermarkets of Britain and northern Europe with fresh fruit and veg.

Now many of the owners of those hot-houses are moving operations across the Strait of Gibraltar.

They are doing it because the aquifers – the natural underground water supplies – of the costas have been sucked dry.

Expert estimates suggest there is enough ground water in Morocco to last the farmers until 2035. And then?

Bad news for the growers. Worse for their poor Moroccan neighbours, who can’t simply move on so easily when their wells run dry.

And it’s not good news for us, either.

Despite the growing pressure for development – for new homes, new roads, the lot – about 70 per cent of British land is still farmed. And of course our farms aren’t short of water, either.

Nevertheless, 90pc of the fruit we eat, and 60pc of the vegetables, are imported. And a lot of it comes from countries where water is scarce.

Worldwide, one in three people face water shortages now. Which makes it more than a little unfair that our five-a-day should be provided literally by flying water – in the form of fruit and veg – out of lands that don’t have enough for themselves.

And it’s not just unfair. It makes us vulnerable too.

We live in an age of plenty. At least, in this country we do. Very, very few of us ever worry seriously about where our next meal is coming from.

But there’s no guarantee it will always be like that. In fact, nationally we lead a pretty hand-to-mouth existence.

The supply chain of food from farm to market to supermarket is highly complex. It depends on fleets of trucks on 24/7 duty across the land, as well as planes coming from abroad. And it’s pretty time-critical too.

How many days’ food supply do you have in your fridge right now? Not many. Maybe a week’s worth. At the supermarket the margin is finer than that.

As Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation, puts it, Britain is never much more than “nine meals from anarchy”.

A real fuel crisis, or a sustained spell of really severe weather could upset the apple-cart more thoroughly and more quickly than you might think.

The last time the potential for food catastrophe in Britain was as great was during the Second World War, when imports were threatened by German U-boats.

Then we were urged to Dig For Victory. Rationing brought a dulling of the national diet, but also – perhaps surprisingly – made it healthier.

The threat now is less obvious, perhaps less urgent or acute. But it’s harder to see what, as individuals, we can do about it.

Collectively, there are schemes such as Thanet Earth, a complex in Kent that promises “a new horticultural future”.

Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are grown “with exceptional green credentials” in three vast greenhouses that actually create energy, selling electricity to the National Grid.

The Dutch-backed company grows its salads by soil-free hydroponics and reckons to recycle all its water. It supplies about 2pc of British demand now, and plans to double that.

Which is impressive stuff. If only man could live by tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers alone.

In fact, Britain is close to self-sufficient in some foodstuffs. Unfortunately, those stuffs are mostly meat and dairy – the very things we eat too much of.

Too much, that is, both for our own personal health and the health of the world.

Even with a booming-to-bursting population, humanity could probably still feed itself if those of us who can afford it hadn’t developed such a taste for meat and dairy products.

It may take a lot of water to grow a tomato. It takes a whole lot more to grow the grass and grain to raise and fatten a beef or dairy cow.

We’re lucky. We’ve got that water. Here. For now.