A drought-struck field of spring barley in South Norfolk

Norfolk Farming Conference will discuss threats – and opportunities – from climate change

Sunday, February 10, 2013
3.00 PM

The wildly contrasting weather of 2012 made it a dismal year for food production. And the Norfolk Farming Conference later this month will hear that our changing climate could bring yet more challenges for the region’s farmers in future – but also some opportunities.

From drought to deluge, and from snowfalls to floods... even by its own fickle standards, the British weather set a new benchmark for unpredictably during 2012, making life extremely difficult for East Anglia’s farmers.

Prayers for rain to revive arid soils after an 18-month drought were finally answered in spring, but the over-zealous cloudburst took us from one extreme to the other, and into one of the wettest summers on record.

It was a disastrous combination for staple crops like wheat and vegetables, with fields flooded, crops washed out and yields damaged.

And the vagaries of our weather are expected to become even more pronounced in future, with climate change predictions suggesting winters becoming wetter and summers becoming drier.

That could present a host of obvious challenges to agricultural productivity – but it could also bring some new opportunities.

The impacts of climate change, and the roles which new technology and science will play in the future of food production, will be among the topics discussed at the Norfolk Farming Conference in Norwich on 21 February.

Speakers will include Dr Clare Goodess, a senior researcher at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, who will outline the challenges of the changing weather.

She said there have been a series of “statistically significant” trends recorded in the East of England between 1961 and 2006, including a 1.8C increase in mean daily maximum temperature, and a steady reduction in the number of frost days.

Predictions from Defra-funded UK Climate Projections (UKCP09) see those trends continuing into the future, with a projected average temperature rise of another 2C by the 2050s, punctuated with an increase of up to 8C in the hottest summer day and more severe rainfall events in winter.

But while drier summers would increase demand for irrigation water, and wetter winters could increase flood risks, Dr Goodess said the potentially-damaging effects of a warmer climate could be partly mitigated by positive changes in wheat and sugar beet yields, and opportunities to grow new crops.

Meanwhile it is thought that increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) could aid photosynthesis, the process through which plants convert CO2, water and sunlight into chemical energy for growth.

Dr Goodess’s suggestions were echoed by Bill Clark, commercial technical director at NIAB (the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, based in Cambridge), who will also be addressing the conference.

He said: “That’s certainly the case with sugar beet yields. It’s the main reason why sugar beet yields have been going up in the last 10 or 20 years.

“If growers sow too early the seedlings are exposed to these low temperatures and produce a flower head and not a root, so you don’t get any yield from that plant.

“If it is warmer in spring then you can sow earlier and the risk of it going to seed or bolting is reduced. Sugar beet is a very simple crop. The more it intercepts light, the higher the yield – so the earlier you can establish it, the higher the yields.

“Climate change is a very positive thing for sugar beet, but for other crops it is a very mixed picture. One of the things we have been concerned about is the effect of very high temperatures on flowering in wheat.

“One of our targets is to look at varieties with heat tolerance. It usually means bringing the flowering period forward so it flowers before the very high temperatures. But that can then shorten the grain-filling period. It is not black and white, as is so often the case when you are talking about climate change.

“In general, climate change for arable crops overall will have an overall negative effect. That is in a situation where we are talking about global food insecurity and where, particularly in Europe, we are talking about trying to increase yields against a backdrop of European legislation forcing yields down.

“If climate change works against us it will be very difficult to maintain yields, even at the level they are at the moment. We are running to stand still.”

Mr Clark said many of the difficulties facing the region’s agriculture were linked to agronomic and technological factors – but, in one of the driest regions of the country, the potential for increasing yields would always be governed by the availability of water.

“Wheat yields have been static for 15 years on farms,” he said. “One of the factors is whether growers are actually growing the highest-yielding varieties. There are some very high-yielding varieties, but farmers don’t always grow the newest ones – they grow the ones they are comfortable with, and the ones they know how to grow.

“Farms are also getting bigger and so it becomes slightly more difficult to maintain individual crops. The bigger the farm, the wider the range of inputs of phosphates and nitrogen. It is very difficult for large farms to optimise their timings for anything.

“In trials we can do that, so yields are going up in trials – but they are not going up on farms.

“The difference between a very high yielding crop and a good crop is often timing more than anything. From an agronomic point of view, optimising inputs is a real challenge, but even if you optimise all your inputs, yields will still not go up quickly enough.

“To grow a 10-tonne crop of wheat, which is not unusual per hectare of good land, that crop needs 500mm of water per year. So it takes half a tonne of water per square metre to produce 1kg of wheat.

“If you want to double your yields from 10 tonnes to 20 tonnes you need twice as much water, 1,000mm per year, and we don’t get anything like that in the East.

“So the answer is not just genetics. High-yielding crops cannot be the answer on their own, because we don’t have enough water. We would need to change the way a crop uses water.

“A combination of plant breeding and agronomic research should allow farmers to raise yields well above those currently achieved.

“But it is a complex scenario, especially in places like East Anglia where water is the limiting factor.”

UEA climate researcher Dr Goodess said the unpredictable weather of the last year was at odds with the recorded annual trends.

“We had a very dry winter with drought conditions in spring, followed by a very wet summer, so what has happened over the last year is very different to the seasonal pattern of dry summers and wet winters,” she said.

“Making sure we capture the winter rainfall is going to be essential in future so that it is available during the summer. It could be that if fields are going to be too wet for winter and autumn sowing, then you might be looking a changing the time of year when you are working the ground.

“The bottom line is that the threats and the negative opportunities seem to outweigh the positive. There will be decreases in frost days which could potentially have a negative impact on some types of agriculture. There is a potential negative impact for those crops that need a cold period before dormancy can be broken, there could be a potential negative impact for some types of fruit, for example. “Also, there is concern that more pests are surviving winter and not being killed off by frost.”

Prof Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre, which is hosting the Norfolk Farming Conference, will give delegates an insight into the centre’s latest plant science research and the benefits it could bring to the agricultural community.

He said: “Instead of struggling with yield grains of half a percent, can we jump to five percent and more? Can we do this at the same time as reducing pollution and agriculture’s contribution to global warming, while also adapting crops to the extremes of weather wrought by climate change?

“Science can help achieve goals that seem impossibly conflicting. What we achieve in the UK can inspire and benefit farmers, breeders and researchers the world over.”

The Norfolk Farming Conference will take place in the John Innes Conference Centre at Colney, from 8.30am to 3.45pm, on February 21.

The annual event, organised by Anglia Farmers (AF) and supported by the EDP, will welcome delegates from across East Anglia and expert speakers from around the world

This year’s theme will be “The Norfolk Farming Conference Goes Global” – a discussion about Norfolk’s role in world agriculture, and the lessons it can learn from the policy regimes and climate challenges being faced in other countries.

Other central topics will include the impact of climate change and the ongoing EU negotiations over Common Agricultural Policy reforms.

AF chief executive Clarke Willis said: “Our line-up of expert speakers will give delegates an insight into the latest research which is being carried out to provide farmers with the knowledge they need to stay one step ahead.”

For ticket bookings, contact 01603 881803 or email helen.bibby@angliafarmers.co.uk.

For more information, visit www.norfolkfarmingconference.org. The official Twitter hashtag for the event will be #nfc2013.