Position paper on climate change and agriculture research priorities

14th Jul 2015

Increasing frequencies of both extreme weather and unseasonal weather episodes have been experienced in North West Europe in recent years. There is nothing in current climatic modelling to suggest that this situation will stabilise in the near to mid-term. This instability in the climate reduces the predictability of weather patterns in the region making planning more difficult for arable farmers, and is likely to affect both productivity and the economic stability of the industry, with knock on effects on future agricultural investment.

In June 2014 the Association of Applied Biologists ran a conference that explored how arable farmers in North West Europe can adapt their practice in order to cope with increasing climatic uncertainty. The organisers of the conference were surprised by the very small number of papers (<5) initially offered to the conference. Although a useful day and a half programme was put together, this involved organisers actively eliciting offers and included a number of talks on agricultural emissions which did not fit perfectly with the subject of the conference.

Following the conference the organising committee discussed these difficulties and concluded that one outstanding reason as to why there were so few initial offers was that research funding in the area of agriculture and climate change is primarily focused on emissions. This suggests that there is a research gap covering near to mid-term adaptation of arable practice to ongoing changes in climate.

There are a number of facets of agricultural practice that may have an impact on the vulnerability or robustness of the arable systems to changing climate. These include but are not limited to soil management, crop selection, equipment selection and use, crop rotation management, water management, use of cover crops and management of adjacent pasture and woodland. Farm infrastructure and transport links may also be involved.

The need to improve research in this area and to provide coherent advice to the arable industry should be driven by considerations of food security, protection of arable resources and environmental protection. Economic sustainability should also be a key priority, at a farm, local community and an industry level.

Current UK research funding priorities and initiatives include broad areas that could cover the need identify here. These include BBSRC’s Sustainably Enhancing Agricultural Production, the Sustainable Agricultural Research and Innovation Club, SRUC’s focus on Future Farming Systems and Crop and Soil Systems, and AHDB research programmes. However, there does not appear to be an explicit focus on short to mid-term arable adaptation to changing climate. The Association of Applied Biologists believes that this is an area that should be explicitly prioritised.

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