Hotter, drier summers are on the cards, say the forecasters with water shortages and droughts more likely.

Strange, but true. The more that climate change gloom dominates the headlines, the more that UK farming is allowing itself to feel just a little better about the future. Of course, this might be an irrational reaction, fuelled by high grain prices and ignorance of exactly how difficult a changed climate might prove.

But farming likes a challenge and in the countryside there is talk of a shift in attitude, a reminder of what agriculture used to be about – the production of essential food and energy here in the UK, not just environmental stewardship.

Pressure on world wheat stocks, the issue of food security, crop failures overseas, increasing world hunger, loss of productive land to flooding, population growth, the rising cost of global energy and the prospect of reduced imports – all these factors add to the argument that once again Britain might need a home-grown supply of food and power.

NFU president Peter Kendall wants farmers to play their part, and sees energy production as a key future role.

“The way to tackle the issues surrounding climate change is to include farmers as part of the solution. We are more than ready and able to rise to the challenges of providing renewable energy. This is our chance to make a positive contribution to mitigating climate change and improving the environment.”

But although climate change may bring a fresh focus for the industry, it will also bring new challenges. Adapting to different weather could be tricky and will require planning. The first problem is forecasting accurately what the weather will do.

What will be the main changes in the weather?

  • Warmer (1-2C by 2050), wetter winters. Fewer frosts, particularly in the SW. Longer growing season, particularly in the SE.
  • Hotter (1.5-3C by 2050), drier summers. More droughts and water shortages in the SE. More days over 27C. Less cloud cover.
  • Annual overall rainfall similar or slightly less. More autumn rainfall in the NW. Less snow.
  • More extreme weather. High winds, particularly across the south coast. Torrential rain. Short periods of exceptionally high or low temperatures. Flooding. Storm surges.
  • A sea level rise of 14-18cm (5.5-7in), threatening low-lying fenland and sea defences in the east.

These average temperature rises may look small, but even a 1C increase will extend the growing season by about three weeks in the south, and 10 days in the north.

Who’ll be worst hit?

Southern latitudes across the world are expected to bear the brunt of extreme weather. In Africa and India hostile weather is already affecting production. In Europe, Mediterranean countries like Spain will be worst affected, due to lack of water and extreme high temperatures.

In fact extreme drought will affect nearly one-third of the planet by 2100, according to the Met Office’s Hadley Centre. But in northern latitudes where water is not generally a limiting factor, the extra carbon dioxide could boost photosynthesis and raise yield potential.

How will crops be affected here?

Higher temperatures and longer growing seasons in northern Europe could boost yields. But there are downsides. Here is what the scientists are predicting, though they emphasise that much of this is just speculation at this stage.

Wheat

The good news is that:

Rainy Britain could fare better than other EU countries, with yields maybe rising by 1-2t/ha due to increased CO2 and higher photosynthesis levels. Plus prices will be strengthened by global shortages.

The bad news is that:

Crops will have to withstand high temperatures and drought. Plus higher yields may need more nitrogen, more fungicides, growth regulators and soil moisture. Early autumn sowing will be ruled out, too, due to the risk of excess growth in mild winters and increased disease. And waterlogged autumn soils might hamper sowing at a later date.

Potatoes

The good news is that:

Yields could be 10% higher, but will need irrigation and nitrogen. There could be opportunities for more double cropping, with frost-free earlier sowing and an expansion of the area capable of supporting early potatoes.

The bad news is that:

Eastern growers without irrigation might have to pass over growing the crop to their wetter western counterparts. Plus there is a greater risk of blight and insect pests such as aphids and wireworm as well as the prospect of more waterlogging and soil erosion in late harvests.

Sugar beet

The good news is that:

Yields could rise thanks to earlier, frost-free establishment, low levels of bolting and a longer growing season. Also, more sun means more photosynthesis and higher sugar yields.

The bad news is that:

There is a higher risk of drought and lack of irrigation might mean beet moves to wetter west. Also, more problems with aphids and BYDV , plus wet harvests.

Oilseed rape

The good news is that:

Yield could rise by 10-20%.

The bad news is that:

With drier autumns, establishment problems will be more likely. Warmer winters could also lead to premature development and a change in disease and pest pressures. Expect more downy mildew in autumn.

Maize

PRIORITIES FOR ADAPTING

What arable farmers will need to plan for:

  • Greater irrigation need
  • A possible shift away from autumn sowing in some locations
  • New crop varieties designed to cope with temperature extremes
  • Changes in soil health
  • New crops, new managements
  • Changes in pest and disease pressure
  • Glasshouse designs developed to cope with warmer summers

What livestock farmers will need to plan for:

  • Managing winter forage (growth, utilisation and water management)
  • Conservation practices designed to ease dry summers
  • More tree planting for shelter from sun, wind, rain and storms
  • Livestock housing designed for hotter summers
  • Safeguarding drinking water availability for summer pasture
  • New forage varieties that ensure grass-clover compatibility under warmer, drier conditions

The good news is that:

A longer growing season and shift to slower-ripening varieties should lift output. The maize area will extend northwards, and maize for silage may replace grass silage.

The bad news is that:

Very high temperatures may shorten the grain-filling period.

Vegetables

The good news is that:

Drought in Mediterranean countries will strengthen prices. Plus, higher temperatures could suit onions, legumes, sweetcorn and carrots.

The bad news is that:

Some winter crops like cauliflower would not get the low winter temperatures they need to yield properly. Also, fenland areas will be at risk from flooding and salt intrusions.

About 57% of Grade 1 agricultural land lies below the 5m contour line. There could also be new pest and disease problems and more requirement for refrigerated transport required.

Novel crops

(sunflowers, navy beans, soya, grape vines, lupins, olives, borage, evening primrose)

The good news is that:

Rising temperatures and a longer growing season put these crops into the frame, particularly in the south east.

Apple orchards could be replaced or supplemented by southern European fruit crops such as peaches and apricots. The first tentative crop of UK olives was even planted this summer.

And what about livestock?

The good news is that:

More grass will be available – perhaps 10-15% in the wetter west – as long as drought doesn’t hit. And there is potential for alternative forage crops. Also, the winter housing period may be shortened and there will be more opportunities to finish cattle and sheep on upland. Overall, livestock production may shift north and west.

The bad news is that:

More carbon dioxide and a longer growing season will increase grass growth, but this could be at the expense of dietary quality. And wetter autumns will increase the risk of erosion and damage to soil structure.

Animal welfare and water supply in hot, dry summers will need attention – more shelter belts of trees may have to be planted, for instance.

Secure housing to protect animals from wet, stormy winters may be needed, too, and dairy parlours may need extra ventilation in summer.

Heat stress is more likely with high temperatures, so reproduction and efficiency in the decades to come could be affected. Warmer conditions could increase diseases and pest problems such as fly strike.

It is possible that imported concentrate prices could rise, too, due to world drought even if the predicted rise in soya yield potential happens. This might encourage production of home-grown legumes as protein feed.

How will biofuels fit into all this?

There is no doubt that renewable energy, whether it is wind turbines, biomass, biofuels or biogas, will loom large in agriculture’s future. Biofuels could save 60% of energy costs, according to the NFU, though it concedes that comparisons between fossil fuel and biofuels are uncertain and complicated.

Emissions and energy savings depend on how the biofuel is grown, and what is included in the calculation. Do you include the carbon emitted in manufacturing the tractor, for instance?

Then there is the issue of whether it is justified to take land out of food production to produce biofuels, given world food shortages.

There are reports that the big expansion in US bioenthanol production is responsible for squeezing world grain markets.

The government has pledged that by 2010, biofuel must contribute 5% of UK road transport fuel.

Could this mean a big increase in organic farming?

The Soil Association argues that organic farming would help offset climate change, with a big reduction in emissions mainly due to not using inorganic fertilisers. These consume energy during manufacture and emit nitrous oxide when used.

The counter argument is that output from home-grown organic farming would not be enough to feed the country, and the UK would have to import large quantities of food. A DEFRA study shows 65-200% more land is needed for organic production.

Will the UK’s water supply system ever cope?

There is no question that water supply will be tight at a time when crops will need more irrigation. In the south east, population growth is already competing with agriculture for water increasing drought will make matters worse.

In 2003, the driest consecutive 10 months on record tested national water supply and drought orders were imposed.

That scenario could become commonplace farmers will have to plan for water conservation (by building reservoirs, for instance) and will not be able to rely on abstraction.

Paradoxically, flooding and drought will be twin problems due to erratic rainfall. Pressure from pollution, soil erosion and salt intrusion will make it more difficult for water companies to deliver enough clean water to consumers.

Farmers will be asked to help by controlling diffuse pollution, managing soils and perhaps storing flood water on wetland. In Sweden, waste water is stored for three months to reduce bio-hazard, then used as irrigation such systems might be needed in the UK. Overall, the best place to farm in future, in terms of water supply, looks like the north west.

Sounds like we will need some accurate weather forecasting in the future, then?

Yes. The question is: is the Met Office up to the challenge?

FIND OUT MORE
  • There is more detailed information on what to expect in your region on: www.ikcip.org.uk and at www.climatechallenge.gov.uk
  • The NFU’s comprehensive report, Agriculture and Climate Change, is available online at: www.nfuonline.com
  • Forum for the Future is a new project, funded by DEFRA with NFU collaboration, and aiming to communicate climate change to farmers. Launch date is January 2007 see www.forumforthefuture.org.uk
  • DEFRA’s climate change section: www.defra.gov.uk includes the Climate Change Programme Review and details of the Office of Climate Change, a new interdepartmental body
  • The BBC’s climate change pages are clear and informative: www.bbc.co.uk
  • In Scotland, www.scotland.gov.uk has a climate change section
  • Climatic Research Unit, UEA Norwich: www.cru.uea.ac.uk

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