Food, Farming and Floods

Food, Farming and Floods: A Wet New Year for Sheffield

It can feel like every other week brings a new extreme weather alert. Most recently, that threat has come from flooding, a plight Sheffield is more than familiar with. Within a week of the new year, more than 600 flood warnings and alerts had been put in place around the UK as Storm Henk made its presence felt. In Sheffield, we’ve seen a clear increase in flooding over the last two decades, with flash flooding affecting the city not only this winter but also in 2007. 2009, 2012, 2018, 2019, 2021, and 2022. 

Increased flood risk is exactly what we expect as our climate changes. Warmer air is wetter, and the heavy rain we associate with flash flooding also happens more frequently. Four of the top 10 wettest winters on record in the UK have occurred in the last fifteen years, and as climate change continues, our wet winters aren’t going anywhere. 

But what’s flooding got to do with the food we eat? 

Firstly, food is a huge consideration in how we prepare for the risk of flooding and respond to a flood when it happens.

At their worst, floods are a risk to life. But even milder flooding can cause severe disruption to critical services such as energy, water, communications and transport. Damage to these services makes it harder for people to access the food they need. Power outages make it harder to cook or store food safely in your fridge or freezer, while problems with communication and transport make it harder to access clean water and emergency food. Contamination of food, surfaces, or tools used for cooking with floodwater is also a significant safety concern.

Access to safe food, water, and resources is crucial for flood risk planning. It’s vital to have a plan in place that provides and distributes these necessities efficiently and fairly to minimise the impact of flooding.

But while preparing for and responding to emergencies like flooding is critically important, it’s just as important to think about prevention. The big picture is that we need action on climate change, and changing our food system is part of that.

Right now, the way we grow and produce our food is adding greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, therefore making climate change worse. This is partly because some aspects of our food system (like making fertilisers or raising cattle) directly produce many of those gases. But it’s also because of how we use land for producing food. When we damage or disturb healthy ecosystems by removing trees and plants, ploughing up soils, and draining peatlands, we stop those ecosystems from soaking up carbon – and instead, they start releasing it.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. By focusing on nature-friendly farming techniques that protect and regenerate the soil while requiring fewer emissions-intensive inputs like artificial fertilisers, we can grow food while keeping carbon locked up in those landscapes. As an extra bonus, healthy, well-managed, nature-rich landscapes are often also better at soaking up water, reducing the risk of flooding both on the farm and downstream.

It’s not only farmers and growers who can make a difference. Reducing food waste could have more impact on climate change than eliminating aviation emissions! Supermarkets can reduce food waste at the source by embracing wonky carrots our farmers so lovingly grew. Retailers can donate food surplus to charities and social enterprises (Check out Food Works Sheffield for a masterclass on using surplus ingredients). Lastly, we need a robust composting system for homes and communities to manage food scraps and reduce waste.

One easy way to make a positive impact is to choose more locally sourced and seasonal produce. Not only does this help reduce our carbon footprint, but it also supports our local economy and creates jobs. Another way to help is by being mindful of our meat and dairy consumption, which can have a significant impact on the environment. By making conscious choices about the food we eat, we can all contribute to a healthier planet and a happier community.

It is important to recognise that our food systems have a considerable impact on the climate. However, we have at our disposal several tools that can help us mitigate this impact. By taking action to implement these tools, we can contribute to reducing the risks of devastating events such as flooding not just in Sheffield but across the globe. 

If you’d like to learn more about environmentally friendly food growing, why not join one of ShefFood’s Growing & Composting working group meetings? They host with partners some fantastic workshops and activities for Sheffield folk ready to get involved. Visit the Growing & Composting Working Group page for more info, or email the team at info@sheffood.org.uk.

Growing & Composting