Richard North, 22/02/2014  

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At last, in Part IV, the last article on this quartet debunking the assertion by Mr Monbiot that growing maize on the hills which form the catchment to the Somerset Levels (and the Thames) has caused the extensive flooding that we have seen over the last three months.

As it happens, Mr Monbiot seems to have more than just maize in mind, to judge from his piece on 19 January in the Daily Mail when he was blaming "European subsidies that pay UK farmers to destroy the very trees that soak up the storm". This is certainly very different from the line taken on maize, almost enough for us to ask for the real Monbiot argument to stand up.

We'll address his broader arguments later. For the moment though, let's concentrate on maize and seek to discover why it is Mr Monbiot seeks to vilify this crop above all else.

The answer, it would appear, lies not in the soil but in Mr Monbiot's discovery that this government – and the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson whom he loathes – recently issued "a specific exemption for maize cultivation from all soil conservation measures", those which had been attached as conditions to subsidy payment in a system known as "cross compliance".

It's hard to get your head round this, huffs Mr Monbiot. The Labour government in 2005 had issued instructions on the control of soil erosion and now this was being kicked into touch. "The crop which causes most floods and does most damage to soils is the only one which is completely unregulated".

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In this as always, Mr Monbiot is wrong. Maize is not at all "completely unregulated". What he is referring to is a passage in Defra's manual on cross compliance which excludes maize from the post-harvest management provisions that apply to other arable crops.

Mr Monbiot makes great play of this, complaining that Defra ignored his queries about this exemption, only finally being told that under cross compliance rules farmers are required to put measures in place to prevent soil erosion and run off for all cropping regimes.

Specific measures for each crop, Mr Monbiot is told, must be included in their Farm Soil Plan, including where the post-harvest management derogation is applied.

That is the case, as can be deduced from the Defra cross compliance manual which refers to the definitive 2010 soil management guidance manual, which still applies. This includes such general provisions as: "Avoid growing potatoes, vegetables, maize and other forage crops on slopes if runoff problems are likely to cause soil erosion", which stand to this day.

As to why the changes might have been made, one can refer to a research project carried out for Defra at a cost of £155,907 on soil erosion control.

Crucially, the research found that the effects of various erosion control treatments varied between sites and years and need further exploration. In some cases, strategies that worked for some types of soil increased erosion on others. It thus made sense not to have standard conditions, instead relying on custom farm soil plans, devised for the specific conditions. 

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And, as for those famous conditions that Mr Monbiot so much wants, there is an exemption for when the land is too wet for cultivation, as is clearly the case in his photograph of the field in the Thames catchment (above).

Returning to the Mail piece, where Mr Monbiot has already condemned all subsidies which interfere with his treasured upland planting, we have already shown that there is no evidence of this having a catchment-wide effect.

In the Parrett catchment, where most of the flooding has occurred, we find that hydraulic structures – i.e., ditches and rivers - "were generally shown to be more effective in reducing flood risk than crop management at the catchment scale in a typical flooding season".

Here, of course, we see the malign effects of the EU's habitat directive where Natural England seeks to turn every ditch and watercourse into a miniature nature reserve, where biodiversity is king, losing sight of the original purposes of such "hydraulic structures".

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Not only do they move water of course but, as this paper points out, they also store water. Properly managed, they provide substantial additional capacity, slowing down the run-off into the rivers and holding it back until the rivers can cope, the very thing that the "wetlands" are supposed to do. Choked up like the Tone (above), they simply cannot function.

The ultimate irony though, is that the essential requirement for maintaining biodiversity in permanent pasture is, according to Defra-funded research, to avoid waterlogging the site, "specifying a maximum water level to limit the degree of surface flooding".

Yet nothing of this percolates into the consciousness of Mr Monbiot or his fan base, represented by the Spectator. They have their own agendas, which has nothing to do with reality.

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