Authors. PJ Griffith BSc. MS, member of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants and TSW Jones BA. PGCE, director Sector39 partnership and CwmHarry. Both authors have an extensive knowledge of UK agriculture.
UK arable production is predominantly a monoculture based on cereals and specifically winter wheat. The lack of diversity in arable production places the UK farming sector at high risk to the impact of climate change. The intense weather conditions in 2012 turned the UK from a net exporter to net importer of wheat for the first time in over a decade. The HSBC Agriculture Forward Planning 2013 reveals that few farms would be profitable without the single farm payment. The current CAP reform gives the opportunity to directly fund agroecology systems. The World Bank and the UNCTAD report that agroecology systems are one of the best ways of developing resilience to food production in an increasingly unpredictable climate. Adoption of these practices within the UK with the emphasis on soil biota health and increased biodiversity should be an integral part of the National Adaptation Plan for Agriculture to climate change and food security.
- How secure is Britain’s food supply.
1.1. UK land usage shows only 20% of the land area is attributed to crop production. Half the country is under some form of grass be that pasture or moorland. The percentage of land under urban use is almost the same as under woodland both being around 12% of the total UK land area. Only 1% of the UK is classified as fresh water.
1.2. Half of the cropped area of the UK is under cereal production and of this wheat represents 60%. Therefore, a third of the UK cropped acreage is in one crop, wheat of which 44% is destined for animal feed.
1.3. Over the last three years (2011 – 2013) 81% of the arable area of the UK has been in either cereals (66%) or oilseed rape (16%). Horticultural production of fruit and vegetables represents only 2% of arable land and of this 98% is grown outside.
1.4. The fact that such a high proportion of the arable area of the UK is in either wheat or oilseed rape is a high risk strategy when it comes to food security. A large proportion of the arable area is at risk from a breakdown in disease or pest control, either from weather conditions preventing timely applications of pesticides or of resistance developing to available products. Herbicide resistance is becoming a major factor in cereal production in areas where black-grass is endemic. Cereal disease resistance to the fungicides is well documented with the strobilurons no longer effective against Septoria tritici, a major fungal disease of winter wheat and triazoles also showing reduce activity. In the autumn of 2012 the wet conditions were perfect for the build up of slugs in winter crops which became almost impossible to control with existing moluscicides.
1.5. The weather conditions in 2012 exemplified the vulnerability of UK agriculture with the current dependence on winter crop production. The harvest of 2012 after a dull, wet and cool growing season saw average yields drop from 7.8 tonnes/ hectare to 6.7 t/ha, a drop of 14 percent on the five year average . Yield losses were also attributable to an outbreak of Fusarium ear blight in the UK wheat crop. A report by Fera showed that nationally the non-toxin producing Microdochium species (M. nivale and M. majus) were responsible for the majority of symptoms; with 93% of crops and 35% of ears within a crop infected by these pathogens. High levels of contamination by Microdochium species will cause reductions in grain quality and yield and affect seed germination. Control from fungicides applied was almost non-existent as timely applications were almost impossible to achieve, due to the wet conditions at the time of ear emergence of these crops.
1.6. The poor harvest was followed by a disastrous autumn sowing campaign. The Farming Online autumn sowing survey showed that across the UK only two thirds of the planned area of wheat was sown. The staggered sowing and unfavourable growing conditions also meant that only half of that sown actually established. Figures from the NFU showed some 11.6m tonnes of wheat were harvested in 2013, down 10pc on 2012, for although the yields per hectare improved dramatically in 2013 this was not enough to cover the shortfall in planted area.
1.7. The net result of this change in climate was that the UK became a net importer of wheat in 2013 for the first time in a decade.
- The implications of volatility in global food supply and demand for UK food security;
2.1. The UK is 80% self-sufficient in indigenous food (Defra Food stats). But this figure hides the fact that although we have been self-sufficient in cereals and milk and over 80% self-sufficient in poultry we are below 60% self-sufficient in fresh vegetables and 20% of fresh fruit (Defra Food Matters). Fruit and vegetables account for much of the UK’s food trade deficit. In 2007 24 countries supplied the UK with 90% of its fresh fruit and vegetables – the UK supplied 19%. The majority (36%) of imported vegetables were supplied by countries within the EU. However, the figures for fresh fruit show we imported from 25 countries with 65% coming from outside the EU. A recent report by PWC on the implications of Climate Change highlighted the dependence by the UK for imported food. A report by the World Bank also shows that new results on the impact of climate change published since 2007 suggest a rapidly rising risk of crop yield reductions as the world warms. Large negative effects have been observed at high and extreme temperatures in several regions including India, Africa, the United States, and Australia. For example, significant nonlinear effects have been observed in the United States for local daily temperatures increasing to 29°C for corn and 30°C for soybeans. These new results and observations indicate a significant risk of high-temperature thresholds being crossed that could substantially undermine food security globally.
2.2. The implications of climate change on the production of food sources outside the UK could have an impact on our supply of those food products we import. This is particularly the case for fruit and vegetables sourced from outside the EU. The countries we currently import from are considered at high risk of disruption to crop production. The risks are from high temperatures and droughts leading to lower yields and poorer quality. This will also result in diminished export opportunities from the countries concerned. The UK animal feed industry’s reliance on imported soya and maize from the South America and the US could see rising prices as shortages of these commodities results due to droughts in these regions.
2.3. Dr Jason Lowe, Chief Scientist at the met-office speaking at last month’s event on UK climate change policy warned that in the longer term there’s a trend towards warmer wetter winters and hotter drier summers, summer droughts and more extreme weather events.
2.4. The past three years weather has given us a taster of how climate change can impact on UK agriculture. The increasing unpredictability of the climate and more frequent intense weather events will test the resilience of any farming practice in play.
2.5. The main factor that will influence any farms ability to adapt to climate change will be the condition of the soils on that farm. The soils will need to have high organic matter content to prevent erosion and compaction, increase water holding capacity and supply nutrients. Any adaptation plan to climate change must include soil structural improvement. A recent study on the soil biota and soil health across Europe identified that many of the soils in UK were at risk, the paper concludes that the high score (i.e., high potential threats) of several areas of United Kingdom and central Europe is determined by the combined effect of a high intensity agriculture, with a relatively high number of invasive species and an increased risk for the soils present there to lose organic carbon (2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Global Change Biology, 19, 1538–1548). The reintroduction of livestock onto arable farms and the use of organic manures are seen as key ways in improving soil health. One system currently being promoted by two Nuffield scholars is the practice of “mob-grazing”. Mob grazing is a school of ‘natural farming’ that seeks to mimic the movements of grazing plains animals on a farm scale. The approach is receiving attention around the world, thanks to pioneers who have put remarkable achievements down to mob grazing, and their claims that it can be used to replenish soils exhausted by monocropping or boost the health of pastureland. The Royal Agricultural Society of England is currently organising a series of workshops on this subject.
2.6. The plan needs to look at water storage through rain water catchment systems and more on farm reservoirs. Flood defences are also paramount and although this is part of the Environment Agency’s National Adaptation Plan, flooding of agricultural land has not received enough attention. The influence of climate change on British agriculture will impact on food security for the UK. The UK Agriculture’s National Adaptation plan needs also to look at the current dependence upon a limited cropping or animal husbandry system which will increase the risk of failure in a climate prone to extreme weather events.
2.7. The HSBC Forward planning in Agriculture 2014 highlights the importance of the SFP in maintaining farm profitability. The budgets compiled by the HSBC for a series of farm enterprises, arable, livestock and mixed farms identifies that without the current level of support many farms would be unviable. The current CAP reform offers the perfect opportunity to link support payments to better resilience of farming systems by encouraging more diversity on farms and better soil management.
- Agro-ecology – building resilience into farming systems and mitigating against climate change.
3.1. Agroecology has been defined as the application of ecological science to the study, design and management of sustainable agroecosystems.
3.2. An evolution to agro ecological would provide many advantages, delivering food security and an increased resilience to climate change. Such strategies also offer greatly increased ecosystems services whilst providing a mechanism to sequestrate large amounts of both carbon and water back into the landscape
3.3. Key Points:
- Current agricultural practices are not sustainable as they depend heavily on fossil fuel inputs and erode the natural landscape. Top soil loss, depletion of soil carbon and loss of microbial diversity are all significant symptoms of this erosion of the biosphere.
- A further limitation of agriculture is that it interferes with the hydrological cycle. Deforestation affects evapo-transpiration and therefore dehumidification of the atmosphere whilst ploughing, bare soils and soil compaction greatly affects infiltration of precipitation to recharge groundwater reserves. This is a significant long term impact.
- Agro ecology and permaculture mimic natural systems, require decreasing inputs and offer a diversity of yields which also include a restored natural ecology
- These benefits would enhance local social, food and monetary economies and could transform and energise economic activity.
- How Farming Can Reverse Global Warming
4.1. The Green revolution has transformed farming from what it was 60 years ago. Increased field scale, intensification of cultivation, agrichemicals, machinery, seed technology and more has combined to create the present day system. However, there are some fundamental flaws in this approach and recent evidence is showing that a further transformation of farming will be required.
4.2. Climate change challenges farming models on several levels. Not least the monoculture approaches are extremely vulnerable to variable climatic conditions and potential pest invasions. Agro-chemical inputs are also of course all derived from fossil fuels: fertilizer, pesticides, diesel for water pumping, farm machines and long supply lines are all extremely vulnerable to a rise in price for oil and of course their use also intensifies climate change.
4.3. Land management patterns, based on the simplification of the natural diversity has also had significant impacts on wildlife and biodiversity which in terms can make crops more susceptible to pest invasion, without the natural self-regulation afforded by a healthy and diverse natural world surrounding our cultivated lands.
4.4. The key factor to resilience in a natural system is biodiversity. ‘There is no redundancy in natural ecosystems’ In other words loss of any species in a system erodes the resilience of the whole system. Agroecology needs to, therefore , value the contribution of every species and not to concentrate simply the target species for production but to think far widely about cultivated an ecosystem.
4.5. Agriculture of the type typified by the intensification of land use increases productivity but only in inverse relation to the inputs required to drive the system. At worst agriculture pits us directly against natural principles and creates an ever increasing dependency of external inputs to maintain a productive system and at the expense of ecosystem function. Agriculture is typically a net consumer of energy when all the inputs are factored in.
4.6. The UNCTAD report, (supported by a great many others) points to the possibilities of agro-ecology, an evolution of our current systems to embrace much of our increased understanding of the function of the natural world. Small scale farms with wildlife zones and interconnected wildlife corridors provide an intensely rich patchwork of ecology, much more akin to the natural world. Water retention habitat creation, humidification, natural pest regulation and a multitude of other ecosystem functions can be integrated in to functional and highly productive landscapes. One of the report’s conclusions was that climate change will drastically impact agriculture, primarily in those developing countries with the highest future population growth, i.e. in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Against this background, the fundamental transformation of agriculture may well turn out to be one of the biggest challenges, including for international security, of the 21st century.
4.7. Perhaps a key perspective in this discussion is whether agriculture and our whole approach to land management can be evolved to a) sequestrate far more carbon into the ground and, therefore, slowdown the onset of climate change b) to insulate and mitigate the possible impact caused by more extreme and variable weather patterns and c) to guarantee a rich diverse landscape consummate with long term conservation, ecological and ecosystems services considerations.
4.8. Observations of natural world show that in many ways agriculture pits us directly against the ecology of the system. Nature builds diversity, builds soil and traps more water into a landscape, via increased soil carbon, wet lands and general rising biomass. Agriculture tends to simplify biodiversity, accelerate the passage of water through a landscape and dry out soils and allow more soil carbon to be oxidised and therefore return to the atmosphere.
- Potential benefits of Agro-ecology, permaculture and polycropping systems.
- Decreasing inputs of fossil fuel derived chemicals and energy
- Increased biodiversity of crops and wildlife, and therefore resilience to external climatic or pest induced stresses
- Longer harvesting season due to reduced intensification and increased diversity of yields
- Re stimulation of the rural economy
- Create opportunities for more urban farming and gardening
- Public heath benefits from greater social interactions and more exposure and involvement to local food production and recycling
- Increased food autonomy and food security
- Use of cover crops and compost to cover bare soils builds soil organic matter with multiple benefits
- Sequestration of atmospheric carbon
- Embracing agro ecology and integrated ecological farming strategies would unleash a new economic wave of opportunity. It would serve to create relocalisation of a significant part of the food supply which would regenerate local trade and related services whilst providing a far greater degree of actual food security of the economically vulnerable sectors of the community.
- Perhaps because of the degree of capitalisation of agriculture, with its huge increases in investment in technology, machines and in working at an increasing scale policy makers are tending to look in the wrong places for possible solutions, strategies and ways forward from current challenges. When we evaluate agribusiness through a prism of energy return on investment what is revealed is that it is a net consumer of energy and not a producer at all and at a significant cost of erosion into the biosphere and the ecosystems services of water storage, purification, transpiration and so much more performed by natural wild systems.
- In the light of climate change and energy depletion it is likely that agriculture needs to evolve to take on board hard won ecological lessons. It should embrace far more diversity in terms of crops, varieties and wildlife whilst being much more closely integrated into human living recycling and energy systems. The application of a far greater understanding of the role of wildlife and biodiversity in regulating the natural world would serve to greatly reduce agricultural inputs and to enhance resilience and to ameliorate the worst excess of climate change.
- Restructuring subsides and incentives to reforest much of our uplands would act as a short term immediate response to the urgency of carbon sequestration, with better understanding it is likely that land management practices might have to prioritise this as the full impacts of climate crises unfolds.
- New economic initiatives might be developed that then build productive systems into these reforested area, such as honey production, fruits, poles for timber, biochar, construction, deer and other game. Just a few examples of the potential for going forward.
An estimate of potential threats levels to soil biodiversity in EU: Global Change Biology (2013) 19, 1538–1548, doi: 10.1111/gcb.12159
International Threats and Opportunities of Climate Change to the UK- PWC
UK Food Security Assessment: Detailed Analysis. Defra January 2010
Food Matters Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century The Strategy Unit July 2008
Farming statistics provisional crop areas, yields and livestock populations at June 2013, United Kingdom – Defra
UNCTAD – Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate September 2013