Agriculture must heed warnings on climate change

24th September 2020

BCPC Online Seminar 22 September 2020

Climate change – The challenges and opportunities for farmers, food production and the environment

Chairman’s Introduction: UK agriculture must heed long-term forecasts on climate change and take steps to protect the farming sector from the challenges posed by global warming.

Knowledge exchange based on fact – not fiction or bias – is key in dealing with the impact of climate change globally and locally, said Stephen Howe of the British Crop Production Council.

Mr Howe was speaking as chairman of an online technical seminar organised by the BCPC in conjunction with the Farmers Club on Tuesday (22 September).

The seminar was titled: Climate change – The challenges and opportunities for farmers, food production and the environment.

“We all need to heed the long-term forecast and understand the steps which we should and can take now to protect us from the storm which is heading our way,” said Mr Howe.

Recent Met Office statistics for the UK reveal that the past decade holds eight high-temperature records – and only one low-temperature record.

“They also confirmed that 2019 was the fifth wettest year on record. As many of us experienced first- hand, that pattern of high rainfall continued well into the spring of this year.”

UK agriculture is in the front line of climate change impacts, said Mr Howe.

A recent NFU survey revealed the 60% of farm businesses had been affected by severe weather in the past 10 years – particularly the financial cost and worries that can bring.

The past year alone has seen one of the wettest autumns and winters, followed by a spring and early summer drought which hit crop establishment, yields and soil structure.

Unpredictable weather patterns pose big challenges – but climate change also presents some opportunities and farmers should make the most of them, said Mr Howe.

Keynote speech: Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at DEFRA, Rebecca Pow MP

Government ready to help farmers combat climate change

Defra minister Rebecca Pow says the government stands ready to help farmers reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impact of climate change.

The government’s Agriculture Bill will work alongside its 25-year environment plan and clean growth strategy to continue guiding emissions reductions in the sector, she said.

In June 2019, the UK became the first major economy in the world to set a legally binding target to achieve Net Zero emissions all sectors by 2050.

Although emissions had fallen over the past 30 years, there was still “much more to do” for the UK to meet its goal, said Ms Pow.

“Farmers will need to play their part in this,” she told a British Crop Production Council seminar on Tuesday (22 September).

Furthermore, a reduction in emissions needed to be examined in the context of the longer term considerations of food security, land use and natural resources.

“Agriculture is a key sector for both adaptation and mitigation given that farms are on the front line of climate change,” said Ms Pow.

“Farming livelihoods are especially vulnerable to [the] increasing variability of temperature and rainfall – as well as to the impact of increasingly frequent extreme weather events.”

The government believes benchmarking and carbon accounting tools could help shed more light on where emissions arise on individual farms.

“There is a great deal of focus now within my department on emissions from agriculture and how to tackle them,” added Ms Pow.

Technological fixes were very important but it was crucial to have a balanced approach that respected and enhanced nature, she said.

“This means de-carbonising while using nature-based solutions and promoting biodiversity.

“Trees planted alongside farmland to sequester carbon could offer benefits for flood management, soil stability, biodiversity and recreation.”

In turn, this would make farming livelihoods more diversified and resilient.

Ms Pow said the government’s forthcoming Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) would pay farmers to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and sequester carbon.

Land management activities that could be funded included creating and enhancing habitats for wildlife species threatened by climate change.

“It is clear that farm businesses – supported by government – must be proactive about forward planning and future-proofing for a changing climate.”

Some 570,000ha of “best and most versatile” land was currently at considerable risk of flood-related damage, said Ms Pow.

This was expected to rise to 750,000ha in a scenario where the temperature rose by 2°C and 940,000ha should it rise by 4°C


Ambitious goal to reach Net Zero ‘is achievable’. 
Dr Ceris Jones, NFU Climate Change Adviser. 

[Full presentation video – Click Here ]

UK agriculture can reach Net Zero by 2040 – a full decade ahead of the government’s target for the country to end its contribution to global warming, says the NFU.

NFU climate change adviser Ceris Jones said the goal would be achieved by balancing a reduction in emissions from farming with agriculture’s ability to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

It was a national aspiration for the agricultural industry as a whole – not an expectation that each individual farm will reach Net Zero, she explained.

Dr Jones said it was important to realise that agriculture was at the start of its Net Zero journey, which would require delivery at both a national and local level.

The government’s forthcoming Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) would help farmers deliver the goal – but it was equally important to address productivity.

Achieving the goal would be based on three pillars – boosting productivity and reducing emissions; carbon sequestration; and a focus on renewable energy and the bioeconomy.


Boosting productivity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions was good for farm businesses as well as the environment.

But Dr Jones cautioned that there was no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all approach for agriculture to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Rather it was about a range of options for different farms.

It included improved plant and animal genetics, better farm business structures, the adoption of precision farming techniques and more energy efficient equipment.

Carbon sequestration

Agriculture had a unique ability to store carbon on land – whether in soil, hedges or trees.

In addition to planting new woodland, it could be about allowing hedges to grow bigger or bringing back old farm woodland into active management.

There were opportunities to create a carbon market and other business opportunities that would reward farmers for storing carbon, said Dr Jones.


Some 40% of farmers have already invested in renewable energy projects on their farms – including anaerobic digesters, solar panels and wind power.

More carbon could be taken out of circulation completely by introducing bio-based alternatives to fossil-fuel based products, said Dr Jones.

They included biofuel crops to help replace petrol and diesel – as well as using wool in insulation, packaging, clothes and furnishing to replace fibres made from fossil fuels.


How farming can adapt to challenge of unpredictable weather.
Prof Steven Penfield, Group leader, Genes in the Environment, JIC.

[Full presentation video – Click Here]

Increasingly variable weather patterns pose a big challenge for UK farmers – perhaps much more so than warmer temperatures.

Climate change will see all UK regions become warmer over the coming years, said Professor Steven Penfield, of the John Innes Centre, Norwich.

But meteorologists forecast more variable weather too.

This includes important changes in rainfall patterns, with more rain in winter and less in summer – although summer rainstorms may be much heavier when they do occur.

Climate models also predict an increase in the number of extreme flooding events and a decline in autumn and winter frosts.

Farmers will have to adapt accordingly, said Professor Penfield.

Under some emission scenarios, the UK could be looking at winter warming of between 4°C and 7°C degrees, with increases in precipitation of up to 50% in some areas.

This had big implications – including opportunities as well as threats – for crops and livestock.

A longer growing season could create substantial opportunities especially in the horticultural and soft fruit sectors, reducing reducing reliance on imports.

It also meant opportunities for some broad-acre crops like sugar beet.

But an expected reduction in overall rainfall in the south of England was a threat – with an anticipated reduction in borehole abstraction licences for irrigation.

It could mean lower wheat yields in some areas.

That said, the overall outlook for wheat production in the UK is expected to remain favourable throughout this century, even under the most pessimistic scenarios.

A longer growing season could be favourable for grass – but restricted growth and crop failures could become more frequent in southern England and East Anglia.

In summary, crop yields are becoming more unpredictable – heightening the need for plant varieties that are more robust and resilient to variable weather.

A one tonne per hectare difference in yield is worth £340 for oilseed rape, for example – equivalent to £200m for the UK economy as a whole.

Rather than relying on buy-back contracts which compensate growers if crops fail, Prof Penfield said it would be better to select oilseed rape varieties that perform well in variable conditions.

Farmers should ask their agronomist to select resilient varieties which were capable of delivering high yields in variable weather across different seasons, he said.


Fertiliser sector aims for zero-carbon nitrogen.
Mark Tucker, Business Development Manager & Head of Agronomy, Yara UK.

[Full presentation video – Click Here]

Fertiliser manufacturers are investing heavily in carbon neutral production processes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help reach climate change targets.

Reducing fertiliser’s carbon footprint can benefit crops as well as the environment, said Mark Tucker, business development manager and head of agronomy at Yara UK.

The widely-used Haber Bosch process involves taking nitrogen from the air and combining it with hydrogen to create ammonia – which is subsequently turned into fertiliser.

Although cost-effective, it is also energy intensive, involving high temperatures and pressures – and contributes to climate change, explained Mr Tucker.

But abatement technology can reduce the amount of nitrous oxide emitted, reducing the carbon footprint of the production process by as much as 90%.

Growers should consider this and try to purchase abated nitrogen fertiliser to help reduce the carbon footprint of their farm businesses, said Mr Tucker.

Farmers should also check the country of origin.

The carbon footprint is much lower for ammonia nitrate and urea produced in Europe than the same fertiliser produced using coal-based systems in China and Russia.

Yara’s initial target is to achieve a 10% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions per tonne of fetiliser produced by 2025.

Ultimately, its goal is to get to climate neutrality by 2050 – largely by producing zero-carbon nitrogen using electrolysis-based green ammonia.

Green ammonia is produced by the electrolysis of water. It is a carbon-free process and can help meet climate change targets – but it will take huge financial investment.

Yara and other fertiliser manufacturers are prepared to make that investment – but farmers can also play their part in achieving Net Zero.

There is much farmers can do in terms of nitrogen use efficiency – which will have a positive environmental impact as well as financial benefits.

Farmers should be cautious about using yield to calculate nitrogen usage because it can result in more than the optimum amount of fertiliser being applied.

Instead, farmers should use technology to guide application rates.

They should also avoid large applications of nitrates – especially on wet, compacted soils or when heavy rain is forecast.

Managing soil conditions correctly and improving soil structure will aid nitrogen uptake by the crop – and reduce the likelihood of fertiliser being wasted.


Horticulture well-placed to tackle climate change.
Ross Newham, Operations Director, NIAB East Malling Research.

[Full presentation video – Click Here]

The horticultural sector is well-placed to help the UK meet climate change targets by ramping up productivity – producing more food using fewer resources.

The sustainable intensification of some crops on a smaller land area would have major benefits, suggested Ross Newham, operations director at NIAB East Malling Research.

It would free up land that could then be used to lock up carbon and reduce flood risk – as well as creating habitats to maintain and increase wildlife, including threatened species.

Horticulture currently accounts for some 25% of the value of plant-based agriculture in the UK but utilises just 3% of the country’s land, said Mr Newham.

Large-scale change is not necessary, he added.

Rather it is about freeing up a small percentage of land for biodiversity and all the very real climate control systems delivered by perennial plants and trees.

Horticulture has already made great strides in terms of productivity – and this is likely to increase as diets and consumer demand changes, said Mr Newham.

A century ago, apples typically yielded 4-8 tonnes per hectare. Now it is not uncommon for apples to yield 40-80 tonnes per hectare.

Cucumbers can yield as much as 980 tonnes per hectare.

In the 1970s, the UK strawberry season was about six weeks long. Now they are available for 10 months or more – helping to meet consumer demand for year-round availability.

Food waste must also be addressed, said Mr Newham.

In the leek sector, for example, only 11% of the crop is consumed because wastage and rejections mean heavy losses along the supply chain.

Science has a key role to play in increasing productivity sustainably too – and increasing the efficiency of “closed systems” for food production.

This includes the breeding of pest and disease resistant varieties, enabling growers to produce food with fewer plant protection products.

It also brings economic benefits. For every £1 spent on NIAB research, for example, at least £17.60 is returned to the UK economy.

Increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables will improve diets – reducing the overall cost of obesity to wider society which in the UK alone is estimated at £27 billion.

While encouraging people to change their diets is difficult, it can be done – especially when children are targeted because dietary habits are formed at a young age.

Already, people aren’t eating as much red meat as they were.

Some people believe consuming red meat will in the future be considered as unacceptable as smoking is today – again freeing up that can be used to for carbon sequestration.


Panel Q&A

[Full Q&A video – Click Here]

Q: Should farmers reduce their fuel and fertiliser usage

Ceris Jones, NFU: Clearly our aspiration is about reducing emissions but we are focused on other things too: delivering cleaner water and air and wildlife habitats – as well as supporting farming families while feeding the nation. We are working on all these things at the NFU

But it is about finding a balance. This is not just about reducing or decreasing what we do. If we can reduce inputs without reducing outputs, then great. But it is also about replace some fossil fuel inputs with non-fossil fuel alternatives.

Q: Can you put a price on carbon sequestration

Ceris Jones, NFU: It’s an interesting question and I have no specific answer. But there are a lot of global initiatives and some burgeoning trading platforms, especially in those large acreages across the world, such as the USA and Australia.

The challenge for us is to work out what that opportunity looks like in the UK – what practices increase soil carbon – and also measuring it so people can see it brings benefits. As the NFU, our role is bringing people together to discuss it – it is definitely something worth exploring.

Q: Can you foresee a day where we won’t be able to grow a crop such as lettuce – despite it being irrigated twice a day?

Professor Steven Penfield, John Innes Centre: I would defer to an expert but one of the world’s biggest lettuce growing areas is Southern California, which is much hotter than the UK. So I would anticipate we will continue to grow lettuce in the UK.

Q: Rising sea levels mean fertile coastal land will eventually be under water. People will migrate inland, further restricting land availability. Are those changes included in climate change mitigation strategies?

Professor Steven Penfield, John Innes Centre: I am not an expert in government strategies to mitigate impact of cliamte change. Much of our high quality coastal land will be less below sea level than parts of Holland – but protecting it will be a political decision .

Q: A warmer climate will favour pests and diseases – yet we have fewer plant protection products available to us. Have you factored that in?

Professor Steven Penfield, John Innes Centre: It’s a good question and a big unknown. Emerging threats – such as the big rise in cabbage stem flea beetle – are really complicated. But we can look at the experience of warmer regions and anticipate that they might arrive here too.

Q: Can’t we just use crop varieties from (say) Portugal and other warmer regions?

Professor Steven Penfield, John Innes Centre: It is not as simple as just growing varieties from elsewhere here. But we could take those varieties and combine them with varieties that we know work well here – and that is exactly what breeders will be looking to do.

Q: What will be the impact of green ammonia be on nitrogen prices?

Mark Tucker, Yara UK: This is big question – least cost production based on the Haber Bosch process drove prices down and that is one reason we ended up where we are today.

The real situation is masked by the true costs of the product and the real costs. The question is who pays – and the farmer and consumer will both be part of that. The extra cost to produce green fertiliser is real – and a real issue.

The question is whether the cost of fertiliser today is too cheap – given the extra environmental cost it imposes elsewhere. It will be up to us to keep the production cost to a minimum but we also have to generate revenue to invest in research and product development.

It will be a 10-year process to scale up to greener fertiliser production.

We could even move away from the current model which is a huge factory to smaller on-farm production facilities that turn farm waste into fertiliser. It is about different models, different technologies and examining what works best and is most appropriate.

Q: If we increase production, don’t we increase soil degradation?

Ross Newham, NIAB: Soil degradation doesn’t have to happen – when we grow cucumbers or strawberries indoors, for example, there doesn’t have to be a negative impact because we already out of the soil. And the more control we have, the less the impact over a smaller area.

Closed systems that enable us to take complete control of the cropping environment enable us to hugely increase the amount of food we produce. They are hugely efficient – for example, by keeping energy and warmth circulating within the units.

Q: Given that government funds are in short supply, what is your priority for UK agriculture?

Dr Ceris Jones, NFU: Government should think about agriculture in the round – about what agriculture can do for the wider economy, not just itself. Agriculture can bring multiple benefits – including health and well being – and it should be at the heart of a green economy.

Professor Steven Penfield, John Innes Centre: Continued tariff free access to the European Union will be just as important as government funding – if the government gets that wrong, it will have a big impact on the agricultural sector.

Mark Tucker, Yara UK: One area we need consistency in is emission factors – whether it is how farmers can manage them in the field or where they sit within production systems. We need consistent measurements and an academic approach that helps farmers make better decisions.

Ross Newham, NIAB: We on the brink of something big with climate change. The implications are huge for us all. The insurance sector has a history of funding research, for example, in flooding. It is not just about funding from government funding but from other sources too.

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