UK arable production set to shift northwards

Climate change is causing a redistribution of UK crop production and further changes can be expected over coming years. That was the strong message from speakers at this year’s Crop Protection in Northern Britain Conference in Dundee (26-27 February).

“Evidence suggests the UK would be one of the regions least affected by climate change, due to the effects of the Gulf Stream, however many challenges still lie ahead,” Melvyn Askew of Census Bio told delegates.

“Water availability in the south east will be one of the main limiting factors for many crops.” For that reason, arable cropping – especially of more water-demanding crops such as potatoes and field veg – was likely to drift north to cooler, wetter regions, he said.

The change had already begun, Greenvale technical director Paul Coleman said. “In general growers are planting earlier and we’re also seeing ware potato production migrating further north into Scotland.”

This was raising extra challenges for soil-borne disease control – especially viruses like potato cyst nematode – and putting rotational pressure on seed crops, he added. “As ware moves north, there will be more pressure on good seed-growing land, which has traditionally had longer rotations.

“We need to make sure we keep Scotland free of diseases like erwinia, ring rot and brown rot to maintain the seed export status.”

Increased demand for biofuel crops was also likely to be a key factor in changing cropping patterns, despite recent high grain prices having slowed growth of the energy crops sector, the Scottish Agricultural College’s Elaine Booth added. “Around 3m tonnes of rapeseed and 0.8m ha of arable land would be required if the entire UK RTFO requirement of 5% of diesel were to be met from rapeseed.

“In the past Scotland grew around double the amount of rape it does now, so there’s great potential. But disease control – particularly club root in north east Britain – could be a major limiting factor and I doubt we’ll get back to the amount grown in the mid-90s.”

Second generation biofuiels potentially offered greater benefits. However, Dr Booth said it would be at least another 10 years before they became commercially practical.

The quality of Scotland’s soils was also highlighted as an important area to protect in the future and Antje Branding from the Scottish Government said they would have an important part to play in tackling climate change. “Scotland’s organic soils contain a lot of carbon and we have a responsibility to try and keep that carbon locked up.

The impending Scottish soils strategy would have put a lot of emphasis on the part soils play in the context of climate change, she added. “We’re awaiting draft proposals, but expect to launch a consultation on this in the spring.”