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Extreme weather could be British farming's next biggest challenge

As a wet 2019 has shown, extreme weather is becoming more prevalent. For some in the scientific community, weather will be the biggest challenge over the next century.

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FG 175: Extreme weather could be British farming's next biggest challenge

Climate change, not the current political turmoil, is what will shape UK agriculture for the next generation and the industry must start to respond to the challenge now.

 

Speaking to Farmers Guardian at the James Hutton Institute’s Dundee site, chief executive of the research body, Prof Colin Campbell, says changing weather patterns and rising temperatures should focus the minds of society as a whole.

 

He also suggests consumers have to make choices at a societal level about the kind of food system they want and, therefore, how that shapes agricultural systems in future. And he believes the use of phrases such as ‘climate emergency’ are not scaremongering, but rather an acknowledgement the changing climate has now reached crisis point.

 

He says: “Climate change is the biggest problem facing agriculture, not Brexit. Farmers are now facing drought or flood at the beginning, middle and end of the year, and that variability of the weather is the biggest challenge for farming in the future. There are lots of things we can do to help adapt to that and some are really simple.

 

“If you take water, flood and drought, there is a lot of talk about how farmers can sequester more carbon into the soil, and they absolutely can, but at the same time getting more carbon and organic matter into soil can help. It is a win-win.


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“We should be talking to farmers about a high variability climate. One of the sensible things to do is build organic matter in soil. It will store more water when there are drought conditions and retain water when there are flood conditions.

 

It helps with climate change, as more carbon is sequestered in soil.

 

“It makes the land more resilient and helps with biodiversity.”

 

But what can farmers do to take this debate from academia and out on to UK farms?

 

Prof Campbell is clear that while many organic farmers have been aware of the need to replenish soil organic matter, many in what he called ‘intensive, highly efficient food production systems’, have not been as cognisant of this requirement.

 

He says: “We have been locked into a mineral fertiliser and synthetic fertiliser approach which means no-one is selling organic matter to farmers. The system is not helping.

 

“That is why through competitions such as Best Soil in Show, we are encouraging farmers to thing about soil as the fundamental building blocks of their business.

 

“If they think about having to grow soil before they grow a crop, you are thinking of the natural assets on-farm.”

 

Where climate change is concerned and consumer engagement around protest movements, such as Extinction Rebellion, comes into play, Prof Campbell can only foresee more scrutiny of agriculture’s carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions in future.

 

He says: “The livestock sector is under a lot of scrutiny, which is difficult as we are efficient at producing meat, far more climate friendly than much of the rest of the world, as it is rainfed, and we utilise grass-fed systems.

 

“However, we could potentially do more grass-fed livestock production and could reduce our inputs or look to mob grazing or other approaches.

 

“We have become locked into a cycle of thinking how we produce more, whereas it should be about how we produce more efficiently and that includes fewer greenhouse gasses.

“We will also need transformational change in food production systems via things such as indoor vertical farming or land use change. These are difficult for people because we are talking about things such as arable land having more grass and rotations, or more grassland becoming trees.

 

"All this is driving to higher carbon systems, which people equate with reducing food production, but it does not have to.”

 

Pointing to transitional land use solutions, such as agroforestry, Prof Campbell believes the Scandinavian model, in which they produce livestock and crops in the growing season, then timber in winter, is something which could be considered here in the UK.

 

He says: “Farmers deserve a just transition to a low carbon economy as much as anyone else. Agriculture canbe part of the solution, but we need to reinvent our agriculture.

 

“We have been aimed at efficient systems with intensive methods, but we could probably produce as much food and get better outcomes in the long run if we take a different approach.”

A Scottish view of the future

 

SCOTLAND has, at first glance, one of the most efficient farm structures in Europe, with larger than average farm size across all land types. But that is not the whole story, as farm size is skewed between the very large and the very small, with 9 per cent of holdings accounting for 76 per cent of land.

 

Gordon Rennie, a tenant farmer and agronomy consultant, based at Stenton Farm, East Fife, believes the most successful farm of the future will be a 162-hectare (400-acre) unit with low borrowings and some diversification.

 

He says: “A farm like that should be very resilient and able to weather the changes. The reason no tenancies are available is because contract farming has taken over. It has been pretty successful, but there is a fundamental flaw – the landlord’s return relies heavily on subsidy and that will stop.

 

“It has to, because at the moment Scottish Government is supporting more slipper farmers than ever in the form of contract farming landlords who are happy to let someone else take the risk.”

 

Urgency

 

John Fyall, former National Sheep Association chairman in Scotland and new entrant on a limited duration tenancy near Aberdeen, adds: “Unless there are urgent and well-considered changes, the tenanted sector is finished in Scotland.

 

“I think Scottish Government’s idea of everyone farming their own few acres is dangerous. It encourages people to take on too much debt. Looking ahead 20-30 years, I think we will need to view ourselves firstly as efficient producers of food and realise there will be lots of opportunities in agriculture and associated public goods, be it as managers or contractors.”

 

Rory Christie and his brother Gregor, trading as Dourie Farming Co, keep 1,000 dairy cows and 200 sows in Wigtownshire.

 

Rory says: “The future depends to a large extent on the attitude of government and consumers. If they pursue a cheap food policy using an unregulated supply chain, they will kill the planet. Everyone needs to be aware of the true cost of natural and social capital.

 

“If farmers fight back in a cohesive, dynamic way and co-operate with each other, we will see regenerative agriculture winning through.”

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