Serving the Farming Industry across the Midlands for 35 Years
Farming needs a strategy to ensure that irrigated agriculture receives a fair share of the nation’s water resources, says a report. Agriculture needs strategy to secure fair share of water

Farming needs a strategy to ensure that irrigated agriculture receives a fair share of the nation’s water resources, says a report.

Fresh water is at the heart of agriculture and horticulture -– and it must be used in a sustainable and efficient way, says the document published by the UK Irrigation Association.

“Most crops grown in the UK rely on natural rainfall and our country is generally perceived to be wet,” it explains. “But rainfall varies significantly across the country, both seasonally and annually.

“Some regions are much drier than others, and here supplemental irrigation is essential to increase crops yields and meet quality assurance standards for processors and retailers.”

Beyond the farmgate, food producers who rely on irrigation are serviced by many other businesses which provide equipment and farm supplies, post-harvest processing and packaging, marketing services, transport and distribution.

Water is at the heart of this industry, arguably one of the most sophisticated food markets in the world. Yet, nearly three quarters of the water volume licensed for spray irrigation is located within catchments that are experiencing severe levels of water stress.

Recent droughts and the longer-term threat of climate change – with hotter, drier summers, reduced water availability and increasing water demand – will only heighten concerns about the reliability of future supplies for irrigated agriculture.


During periods of water shortage, domestic use, industry, and the environment generally take precedence over farming, says the report. Coupled with other uncertainties, many farmers are reluctant to invest in irrigation infrastructure for the long-term, it warns.

“Droughts and water scarcity also threaten the sustainability of irrigated farming and the rural livelihoods it supports,” says the document.

“The government is encouraging the food and farming sector to increase productivity through sustainable intensification and to expand markets both nationally and internationally.

“There is significant potential for growth and opportunities for improving the rural economy, but uncertainty over future water supplies: availability, reliability and quality, will all have important consequences for irrigated farming.”

“This may act as a disincentive or constraint on future growth and investment.”

As we have seen this winter, the UK relies on importing more than 50% of its food, including potatoes from Israel, tomatoes from Morocco, citrus from South Africa and strawberries from Spain.

When water shortages threaten home-grown production, wholesalers, supermarkets, and food service sectors may switch to sourcing from other countries which exacerbates the risks faced by home producers.

“By importing irrigated produce, we are also exploiting water resources overseas – in effect, we are exporting our environmental problems to other countries that may be less able to manage their water resources and climate risks.”

Imports may also increase food costs and bring risks of new pests and diseases into the country. Some imports are inevitable because consumers expect to buy out-of-season fresh fruit and vegetables, says the report.

But it asks: “Can we afford to continue relying so much on imported food? Producing fresh fruit and vegetables in the UK requires much less water than growing similar crops in countries we rely on for import.”

Today, irrigated farming faces unprecedented threats from water scarcity, driven by competition from other water users, over-abstraction and over-licensing in some catchments, changing water regulation, climate change, and drought.

Since the aftermath of the 1976 drought, a strategy for irrigation has been neglected – despite the record-breaking hot summer of 2022. It is now timely for the sector to set out a vision for the future, says the report.

“This strategy is the next step towards supporting continued abstraction for irrigation, recognising its importance to sustaining the rural economy and the farming landscape, and how it helps to underpin the wider agrifood industry as a primary producer of food crops. “The strategy recognises that freshwater resources are limited, particularly in the drier parts of the country, opportunity costs are high, and water is much in demand for public water supply, industry, power generation, the environment, and for amenity.”

Irrigation ‘adds value’ to agrifood industry

The agrifood industry is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector and over 6,600

food and drink businesses source their produce from UK farms. This industry is:

• Worth £112 billion to the economy (8% of total)

• Employs >3.6 million people (14% of total)

• Accounts for 19% of the UK’s total manufacturing turnover

• Buys two-thirds of the UK’s agricultural and horticultural produce

• Adds £4 in food processing, wholesale, and logistics, and a further £5 in food and retail
catering Gross Value Added (GVA) for every £1 of primary production

For more information, visit