by Tom FitzGerald
The shift in the public’s consciousness towards climate change has been accelerated by the recent COP26 conference in Glasgow. Whilst there was criticism from some that the final negotiation was more heavily geared towards the reduction of fossil fuels, rather than farming and land use - there was however considerable attention given to agriculture during the conference.
According to the UK Government Briefing on Climate Change and Agriculture, Agriculture in the UK is responsible for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, farming is responsible for 10–12% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause climate change. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) data goes even further and shows that food production, distribution and consumption is responsible for no less than 33% of the emission of greenhouse gasses.
Mitigation of and adaptation to climate change are the two key themes that farmers and the public are focused on at present. During the COP26 conference, discussions were aligned to national commitments such as Brazil’s plan to scale its ABC+ low carbon farming programme to 72 million hectares, saving 1 billion tonnes of emissions by 2030, Germany’s plans to lower emissions from land use by 25 million tonnes by 2030 and the UK’s aim to engage 75% of farmers in low carbon practices by 2030. The tide is turning on discussions, however, it will be the next decade that is critical in terms of governments engaging with farming communities to turn the dialogue into action.
Globally, climate change is projected to increase temperatures and change rainfall patterns; increasing the frequency of extreme events, such as droughts and floods. The impact of climate change on agriculture across the world will be vast. Farmers will have to cope with this shift in climatic patterns, and the knock-on effects in terms of cropping, land use, water scarcity and natural disasters. Areas that were able to support crops and land uses of a certain type, such as cattle ranching in the outback in Australia, may well become economically non-viable due to the unpredictability of rainfall events and the increased likelihood of disasters such as wildfires. Likewise, where there are global & local losers there are also local winners such as Russia who may see crop production increasing as the growing season lengthens and production creeps further northwards.
How does climate change affect farming in the UK?
Here in the UK climate change is projected to result in warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers. This too could alter the range of crops that are able to grow in our current maritime climate. Crops such as maize are already grown in the UK, however in northern areas production is often supported by later sowing or sowing under plastic. Warmer winters could result in crops being drilled earlier, resulting in higher yields - and with less of a carbon footprint in relation to the absence of plastic film being used to protect the young crop. Hotter and longer summers could also lead to an increase in grain maize production, in comparison to the dominant forage maize for silage.
The UK is also heavily dependent on imports of high-protein Soybeans as a feedstuff, to support ruminant and non-ruminant livestock production. The vast majority of imports are coming from Brazil and the USA - where criticism is increasing towards the negative effects of monoculture cropping and the subsequent impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss. With warmer temperatures in the UK, there could be the opportunity for UK farmers to produce the Soybean crop that is currently not viable to produce at the moment.
Climate change and consumer behaviour
Consumer consciousness of climate change and its impacts on farming and food are also changing. According to recent research by Accenture 60% of consumers were reported to be making more environmentally friendly, sustainable, or ethical purchases since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This would appear to be in line with a reduction in meat consumptionand a greater understanding of the source of meat can have a major impact on its environmental credentials. For example, pasture-fed local beef in the UK is not comparable to stock fed on grown feed, especially feed grown on reclaimed forest. Again this poses challenges and opportunities for farmers across the world, with an increased focus on localism, regenerative farming practices and the increasing frequency of veganism and plant-based foods. We expect that pasture-fed quality beef will increasingly be seen as a key part of a balanced diet, with consumption reducing but quality and price opportunities being available to producers and markets able to communicate their story - the UK could do well in this regard.
It is important to note that real gains in environmental practices have already been made in UK farming, and the change in funding approach from the EU funding subsidy model towards the new ELM model will take this further. As technological understanding of the relationship between soil health, carbon sequestration, pasture and crop management improves it is likely that on-farm approaches will shift. We expect to see further shifts towards reduced till approaches, cover cropping, manure management and specific application of fertilizers and sprays. Farmers have always been at the front line of environmental management by the nature of their work, and this shift will recognise the role they will need to play, even if the money they receive will not match the existing subsidy.
The challenge is doing this whilst still maximising food production and reflecting the economics of reality. For example, prime agricultural land in the east that has been drained during the war to increase our self-sufficiency. In a hypothetical debate - should this be returned to be a carbon sink or produce (lots of) food? Do we create the UK to be an environmental leader but accept that we will import food from less managed environments? How many people in the UK don’t realise that crops cannot be grown in upland areas? The debate between the dimension of environment and production is a challenging one, with agriculture needing to engage customers in new ways to tell its’ story.
What do you think? Do you think farming is the problem, or does it offer part of the solution to climate change? How have your buying practices changed based on your knowledge of global warming? How are you better understanding the realities of agriculture and the choices being made?
About the Author
Tom is the UK and Ireland Partner Success Manager for cloud based farm financial management software, Figured. Tom is an experienced farm consultant, agronomist and has worked in several roles in the agtech sector. Tom primarily works with Figured’s accounting and consulting partners in the UK and Ireland and supports customers in the companies other markets of New Zealand, Australia, United States and Canada.