WITH 2014 reported as the warmest year since records began, continuing a strong trend in recent years, we ignore the implications for agriculture in the UK in the medium to long term at our peril.
The issue is not just the rising average temperatures, but the type of weather, which trends suggest are becoming more prone to extremes. In particular, rainfall patterns are predicted to change with drier conditions in the southern UK causing issues with water supply for crop growth whilst in Scotland rainfall is expected to become concentrated into short bursts of heavy rainfall.
“UK agriculture is currently some of the most productive in the world for key crops such as cereals and potatoes – traditionally, our warm, mild, wet climate has been well suited to world-beating yields per hectare and our lead in agricultural research has cemented these advantages. As the climate changes, the sector – and the research and development capability that supports it – can use its strong position to anticipate new circumstances and adapt resources and practices accordingly,” says Tim Daniell, Theme Leader for Sustainable Production Systems at the James Hutton Institute.
Ken Loades, a soil physicist at the Hutton Institute, points out that this increased rainfall intensity will lead to greater levels of soil erosion especially on sloping ground. “These effects may be minimised by altering land management to increase infiltration and reduce run off. This would have the additional advantages of maintaining groundwater levels, providing irrigation water during dry periods, and reducing flood risk,” he adds.
Adrian Newton, a senior cereal pathologist also at the James Hutton Institute, says changing climate will inevitably lead to alteration in the key pathogens that farmers have to manage. “New threats previously associated with southern climates may become more prevalent however threat from other diseases may reduce.
“This will be driven by both temperature and rainfall changes. Changes in the mosaic of crops across the landscape may also present additional threats from pests and diseases which can be hosted on more than one plant species. Also synergistic effects of climate change, such as combinations of temperature carbon dioxide and water availability, need to be explored as each has typically been studied in isolation.”
Tim Daniell agrees that these are challenging times but studies suggest that there may be an opportunity to increase cropped land area, especially in Scotland, and increase the diversity of crops that can be grown. “Clearly the alteration in our climate will have a profound effect on our agricultural landscape and the Institute – along with others – is directly involved in increasing both our understanding of the effects of climate change and how agronomy Whatever the future climate picture, the key is for society to be ready to adapt to new circumstances by planning crop breeding, agronomy and agricultural practices around a range of potential scenarios.”
Whichever way the situation evolves, making these transitions sustainably is the only way to ensure continuing food security and ongoing viability in farming.