Food and farming – Delivering science to our stakeholders

Met Office science is helping UK farmers prepare for a changing climate. This work includes a number of ‘Climate Services’ which are funded by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), as well as other projects.

Why do we need to adapt UK agriculture to a changing climate?

The UK Climate Projections (UKCP) show us that the UK is likely to experience ‘hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters’, as well as an increase in extreme rainfall events. These changing conditions mean that we need to adapt to our changing climate, including in the agriculture sector. Adaptation is action that reduces or overcomes climate change impacts that are already happening or will happen. One example of adaptation in the agriculture sector could be building shelter for cattle so that they can be shaded during extreme heatwaves, reducing the likelihood of cattle heat stress.

The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk report (2021), which uses UKCP projections, identifies climate change as one of the greatest risks to the UK food sector. The CCC’s Advice Report sets out 61 specific climate change risks and opportunities in the UK which should be considered in the next five years. It also highlights eight priority risk areas needing urgent further action over the next two years. Two out of eight of these priority risk areas relate to UK food: ‘risks to crop, livestock and commercial trees from multiple climate hazards’ and ‘risks to supply of food, goods and vital services due to climate-related collapse of supply chains and distribution networks.’

Examples of Met Office research on food and farming

The Defra-funded Met Office climate service on Food, Farming and Natural Environment focuses on the impacts of climate change on farming, with the aim of informing policymakers on the future adaptation needed in the farming sector. This involves close collaboration with Defra and informs policy and action through Defra’s 3-yearly UK Food Security Report and contributions to the National Adaptation Plan. The climate service also has strong links to the UK’s Global Food Security Programme.

Our Plant Pest and Disease work explores the climate sensitivities of UK plant pests and diseases. Pests, pathogens and invasive non-native species present serious risks to agricultural productivity, with consequences for livelihoods and businesses. Large-scale outbreaks or invasions may also have ramifications for food security. Climate change is increasing the risk of impacts from pests and pathogens, due to warmer and wetter conditions especially in the winter months. For example, warmer temperatures result in increased over-winter survival rates of pests.

This work also looks to enhance emergency response to pests and diseases using climate and weather data. A major output of the project has been the development of a web tool for estimating priority pest emergence. The pest web emergence tool (developed in collaboration with partners from Defra, Fera Science, University of Exeter and University of Warwick) uses gridded climate data and pest-climate relationships to provide estimates of when microclimate conditions might be suitable for known, invasive plant pests. Guidance on how to use the tool can be found here.

Our Food Security work has explored the impacts of changing weather and climate extremes across the UK food system. Weather hazards affecting the UK food system include low rainfall and drought, wind, storms and storm surges, high rainfall and flooding, and heatwaves and hot extremes. The occurrence and severity of these hazards is expected to worsen with increasing climate change. Whilst the impacts of climate change on primary production (e.g., drought leading to crop failure) are relatively well studied, there is less work looking at other parts of the food chain. For example, increased occurrence of heatwaves will impact upon workforces in the processing and packaging part of the food chain, whilst increasing storms will impact upon transport and infrastructure systems. Work done in the Met Office (Falloon et al., 2022 – What do changing weather and climate shocks and stresses mean for the UK food system? – IOPscience) is exploring climate change impacts on all these parts of the food chain to help inform UK Government decision making.

Another example of Met Office work relating to food and farming is a UK Climate Resilience (UKCR) programme-funded project looking into future climate risks from compound events (Garry et al., 2021 – Future climate risk to UK agriculture from compound events | Semantic Scholar).

Compound events happen when two or more weather/climate hazards occur simultaneously or in close succession, potentially causing greater impacts than when the hazards occur alone. Future projections show UK-wide increases in the frequency and duration of thermal heat stress in dairy cattle and potato blight events. This study uses the UKCP regional projections to examine the effect of climate change on the dairy and potato farming sectors over the next thirty to fifty years (2051-2070). You can read more on this study on our website.

These projects demonstrate just a few examples of the ways in which the Met Office delivers science on food and farming to our stakeholders. We have been sharing more on the topic of climate and change and food security on our social media channels this month, so if you’d like to find out more follow #GetClimateReady on Twitter.

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