Adapting agriculture for today’s climate challenges

There has been wide consideration of the important role agriculture has in mitigating climate change. By reducing emissions, maintaining and sequestering additional carbon and moving towards net zero, farmers will become ever more important in the quest to prevent dangerous levels of climate change.

But what about the impacts of climate change we’re already committed to, both now and in the future? Adapting to climate change isn’t something to be left for another day, making the agriculture sector resilient to the impacts of climate change is an important action for now.

NFU climate change advisor Dr Ceris Jones and Met Office climate scientist Dr Pete Falloon, who specialises in the impacts of climate change on agriculture, explain why adaptation is so important across the whole industry.  

Agriculture has had its fair share of scrutiny when it comes to climate change, with most eyes on how it has an important role to play in reducing emissions, absorbing carbon dioxide and ultimately helping prevent the very worst levels of climate change. But climate change is already happening and impacting on our industry.

What changes to our climate are we already seeing?

The earth’s atmosphere has already warmed by around 1.1°C and although global temperature increases such as 1.5°C or even 2°C may sound small, it’s not just the relatively small global temperature rises that impact us on the earth’s surface.

Generally, in the UK, we’re seeing warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers and this theme is likely to continue in a warming planet. With a warmer climate there are increased levels of evaporation as a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. This can lead to drier conditions and droughts becoming more impactful, for example on crops and pasture growth. It also means we’re seeing fewer frosts which reduces the number of chill hours needed for production of some crops.

Aerial view of flooding on Henry Ward’s farm in Lincolnshire, December 2019. Credit: Dominic Swire / NFU

Along with slower changes in average climatic conditions, we’re already seeing more extremes which can be directly attributed to climate change. As the warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture – approximately 7% more per 1°C of warming – when it rains we can see higher totals, bringing an increase in flood risk. We’re also likely to see an increase in intense summer rainfall which could cause damage to crops at an important time of year in the cropping cycle.

These changes will be slightly different depending on where you are in the UK. The Met Office worked with the BBC to create a free interactive postcode checker so you can see the potential impacts of future climate change in your area.

With agriculture on the frontline of many climate impacts, it’s important that the UK’s farmers are resilient and able to operate viable businesses and produce food in a more challenging climate. We have already seen more and more severe flooding events happening across the country, alongside periods of drought and high temperatures and these are only going to get more frequent. As people who run businesses which are dependent on the weather, it’s important farmers do all they can to adapt to these impacts.

As a sign of its importance, agriculture is referenced frequently in the Government’s recent Climate Change Risk Assessment, with a number of risks and opportunities recognised for the industry.

How can farmers adapt to climate change?

Adapting to climate change will require investment to be supported but not everything needs to be a costly infrastructure project, it can start from something as small as moving a gate to a drier part of a field to provide resilient year-round access or making sure your drainage in hardstanding areas is free from blockages and able to cope with heavy downpours to prevent flood damage. Are there simple solutions that would work for you to provide livestock adequate shelter from severe weather and intense summer heat?

Equally there are some more long-term strategic decisions that the industry, research, government and the supply chain need to be thinking about, whether that’s developing innovative approaches to managing and monitoring new pests and diseases, breeding crops and livestock that are more resilient to heat stress, ensuring that farmers get a fair share of water or better sharing climate risk across the supply chain. We need to work together to ensure that the solutions are available and viable for those producing the food that feeds the UK.

What are the benefits of farm adaptation? 

What is great about many of the actions we can take to adapt to climate change is that they can also help mitigate against global warming and benefit biodiversity and society. One of the clearest examples of this is building up soil organic matter where possible. Not only is this good for carbon sequestration, but it can also lead to better water-holding capacity, which will help crops in drier summer conditions, and benefit soil biodiversity.

Dry, Parched ground with deep cracks in a ripe wheat field at sunset. Credit: NFU

There’s no one solution to making sure that UK agriculture is ready for the impacts of climate change, but the cumulative effect of lots of different measures on-farm and beyond can add up to make a real difference.

How can I find out more?

We’ll be talking more about adapting to climate change in a Twitter Spaces live conversation on 1 March at 16:00. Follow @MetOffice and @NFUtweets on Twitter to tune in and learn more.

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