New report flags risk of East Anglia dustbowl

Published: 11 January 2017 at 17:30

Dry, cracked earth

Study shows the potential impact of environmental tipping points on food system

The Global Food Security (GFS) programme has published a new report providing evidence for the existence of environmental tipping points and exploring the potential consequences for food security, including the danger of East Anglia being turned into a dustbowl.

The report Environmental tipping points and food system dynamics is co-authored by Professor Aled Jones of Anglia Ruskin University, and was unveiled at a Parliamentary event on Wednesday, 11 January attended by MPs, policy-makers, leading industry figures, researchers and funding agencies. 

Tipping points occur when an environment experiences a shift from one stable state to another, thereby altering its function.  This can pose a serious threat to global food security because it could bring about profound changes in the provision of environmental goods and services that are difficult to reverse.

Professor Aled Jones, Director of Anglia Ruskin’s Global Sustainability Institute, said: 

“Tipping points exist in both physical and socio-economic systems including governmental or financial systems.  These systems interact in complex ways. 

“Small shocks may have little impact and we could believe the system is resilient. However, a particular shock, or set of shocks could tip the system into a new state. This new state could represent a collapse in agriculture or even the fall of a government.”

The potential of a dustbowl in East Anglia is an example of a tipping point which is connected in two ways to the global system.  Firstly, drought is made more likely due to climate change.  Secondly, the drivers of climate change and agricultural intensification both arise from growing global demand. 

The East Anglian fenland peats cover a total area of 132,000 hectares.  In Cambridgeshire, 70% of land is Grade 1 or 2, compared to the average for England of 18%.  However, intensive cultivation has meant that only 16% of the peat stock recorded in 1850 in the fens now remains.

The loss of peat leads to a reduction in soil organic matter and soil biodiversity, which has long-term detrimental effects on crop yield and increases the susceptibility to erosion.  The report considers an unprecedented drought to be a plausible scenario that could lead to dustbowl conditions, with erosion driven by strong winds.  It highlights the rains of late spring 2012 which helped avoid such a situation following a drought stretching back to 2010.  

Loss of fertility would reduce the ability to produce home-grown vegetables (East Anglia, accounts for about 29% of Britain’s area planted for potatoes).  But any loss of fertility would have economic impacts beyond farm revenues.  In the Cambridgeshire district of Fenland, 12% of all businesses are agricultural, which is twice the national average.  These account for significant employment in an area where other employment opportunities are limited.