RETURNING productive farmland to the sea won’t feed many mouths.

And the Wallasea Island project that will turn hundreds of hectares of prime agricultural land into little more than a swamp is the most ambitious of its kind.

Supporters of the Essex coastal scheme argue that it makes economic and environmental sense.

After all, the government doesn’t have a bottomless pit of money.

Maintaining sea defences is costly and we live in an age of austerity. Allowing the area to return to wetland will be cheaper and will benefit wildlife.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, conservationists are largely in favour of the scheme. But the farming community is split.

Some farmers can’t see a problem. They argue that is little different to selling off farmland for a housing development.

Others disagree. And understandably so.

Radical increases in food production are needed to feed a world population forecast to reach 9 billion by 2050.

It’s a well-worn statistic repeated so often it is in danger of losing its impact.

But we shouldn’t forget: returning land to the sea won’t feed many people.

It is hard to reconcile the need for farmers to produce more food with a scheme that will see good farmland rendered unproductive.

We’re a small island and land is scarce.

Such is our need for decent farmland that eclaiming it from the sea is something we’ve done since Roman times.

Coastal defences continue to be an emotive subject in a low-lying area like East Anglia, where we’ve battled for centuries to keep the sea at bay.

The 1953 floods – which claimed more than 300 lives along the east coast – are still well within living memory.

Given the choice, many farmers would rather maintain coastal defences themselves than watch water wash over sea walls.

But complex and bureaucratic planning laws overseen by powerful government agencies make it almost impossible to take any action.

Schemes like Wallasea aren’t meant to pitch farmers against conservationists.

But many farmers will have more than a sneaking suspicion that this project is little more than a convenient way of saving public money while disposing of material from the Crossrail project which has to be dumped somewhere.

Some 4.5 million tonnes of earth from the construction of new rail tunnels under London will be used to help build the nature reserve at Wallasea.

Any environmental benefit is a happy coincidence.

Photo: Simon Phillips / RSPB