Adapting agriculture for today’s climate challenges

02 March 2022

Environment and climate
A farm in Lincolnshire completely submerged by water, with only the steading visible

NFU climate change advisor Dr Ceris Jones and Met Office climate scientist Dr Pete Falloon explain why agricultural adaptation is so important across the whole industry.

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.

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, as explained in the Met Office's page Climate change in the UK. 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 you can read about on the Met Office's blog post 127 years since UK's joint-lowest temperature. This reduces the number of chill hours needed for production of some crops.

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.

What will the impact be in your area?

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.

IPCC publishes new adaptation report

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published its sixth report detailing the global impacts of climate change, the vulnerability of people and ecosystems and the importance of adaptation.

The report leaves no doubt about the unavoidable multiple climate hazards the world will face over the next two decades if we don’t act. It makes it clear that this decade is critical for action on adaptation and mitigation if we are to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Read more below.

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.

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?

On 1 March 2022 NFU climate change advisor Dr Ceris Jones and Met Office climate scientist Dr Pete Falloon held a Twitter Spaces live conversation talking all about adapting to climate change.

Listen back using the link below and follow @MetOffice and @NFUtweets on Twitter to continue the conversation.

IPCC publishes report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability

Global food production

The IPCC report states that climate change is “increasingly hindering efforts” to meet the nutritional and calorific needs of humanity, and is already affecting “all dimensions of food security”. This includes availability, access, stability, and food quality and safety.

It shows that, over the past 30 years, major crop yields have decreased globally by 4-10% due to climate change. The greater the increase in temperature, the greater the risks not only to food production and productivity, but to soil health, pollination, livestock mortality, crop nutritional value and pest and disease pressure.

It suggests that farmers could increase their businesses’ climate resilience by:

  • Diversifying their crops and livestock
  • Planting trees and bushes on fields
  • Increasing soil health and soil organic matter
"It is crucial we act quickly. Even though impacts are felt more keenly elsewhere, the UK is not exempt."
NFU environment forum chair Richard Bramley

Climate change and nature

The report demonstrates that nature offers a lot of untapped potential to both reduce climate risks and improve people’s lives, and calls for ecosystems to be restored and safeguarded.

It also stresses that solutions are deployed in the right places and with the right approaches for that area, guided by local and indigenous knowledge, scientific understanding and practical expertise.

Impacts on UK farming

The summary doesn’t specifically discuss UK agriculture, but it does reinforce the view that food production in northern Europe could be relatively less affected than other places in the world. 

It states that specific impacts of climate on agriculture vary by region, and highlights sub-Saharan Africa, South America, the Caribbean, southern Asia and western and southern Europe as the main places experiencing negative climate impacts.

NFU environment forum chair Richard Bramley said: “British farmers are already doing a lot to reduce their impact on the climate, and we need to see the UK government recognising just how important British farmers are to our national wellbeing as the country works to adapt to climate change and mitigate its effects.

“Ensuring adaptation measures work on a local level is a crucial element of the IPCC report, and as custodians of the land farmers will be well placed to provide that local knowledge and practical expertise.

"It is crucial we act quickly. We heard from WFO President Theo de Jager at NFU Conference about the climate challenges faced by African farmers. And even though impacts are felt more keenly elsewhere, the UK is not exempt. As I know all too well, flooding is becoming a regular occurrence in this country and we must do all we can to make domestic food production more resilient to climate change.”

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