How climate change is affecting UK agriculture

  • Agricultural brush manufacturers Brushtec take a look at how exactly is climate change impacting the industry and explore some of the solutions that industry leaders have proposed?

Climate change is already having a huge impact on the lives of many people across the globe. But it isn’t just affecting people on an individual level, as so many industries are feeling the impact of climate change in different ways, including hospitality, energy companies, and of course, agriculture. In fact, agriculture is one of the hardest hit industries by climate change in the UK (RBR Advisory).

The industry has been impacted by climate change and global warming in a number of ways. It isn’t just the physical change produced by the environment that affects the industry either, but people’s attitudes towards agriculture, as well. Many fear that the sector isn’t sustainable in its current form, as a 2019 report found the industry produces 10% of total GHG emissions in the UK, as well as 68% of total nitrous oxide emissions and 47% of total methane emissions (GOV.UK).

For years the growing seasons have been predictable in the UK, which has allowed businesses in the agricultural industry to develop a growing plan for the year ahead. However, season creep is rapidly upturning these plans. Season creep is the name given to the phenomena of spring arriving much sooner than usual, and the winter arriving later and being milder than it used to be.

While the growing season was an average of 244 days in the 19th century, this rose to 280 days from 2006–2015 (Countryfile). And, as it’s predicted that the UK will experience an extra 0.6°C warming by 2050, the growing season will only become longer (Climate Change Committee).

One of the issues with the flowering season of plants changing due to season creep is the impact this has on pollinating insects. Plants are flowering too early in the year for many pollinators, which is putting the insects out of sync with the crops and causing a temporal mismatch. As well as having an immediate impact on crops, this will also have a long-term effect as the insects will be at risk too, which is bad news for the future of the crops. On top of this, the lack of cold winters is bad for crops such as apple, pear, and apricot trees which need a cold weather cycle as a reset so they can produce fruit each year.

A popular method of offsetting the carbon footprint of a business is planting new trees. Planting new trees in a farm can come with many other benefits too, including increasing water infiltration rates, providing shade for livestock, and playing a part in helping local wildlife thrive. Plus, although it will take many years to yield results, timber can eventually be sold for a profit.

However, planting new trees can have a negative impact on both UK agriculture and the environment too if not done correctly. A report by the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) has found that planting trees without proper planning and the knowledge of where to put them can actually have a negative impact on water quality, air quality, and biodiversity. And, if the trees are planted on existing agricultural land, this can both cut the amount of profit a farm can make and increase reliance on imports in the wider economy. So, while planting trees can be beneficial to both the local farm ecosystem and the environment more generally, great care must be taken to select the correct species and location.

As people grow more concerned about becoming more eco-friendly consumers, many farmers are seeking solutions that will reduce their impact on the environment, without taking too much of a toll on their profits.

One way many are doing this is by shifting to regenerative farming to rebuild topsoil and increase biodiversity. This is incredibly important for the future of farming, as more than 85% of UK topsoil has been lost since 1850 (Responsible Investor). While there is no one way to do regenerative agriculture, a few methods in which it can be practised include:

Managed grazing: Moving livestock regularly and controlling grazing intensity can allow pasture time to regrow and improve the fertility of soil.

No-till or minimal till farming: By not breaking up soil every season (or doing it as little as possible), no-till or minimal till farming allows the diversity of soil microbes to increase and improves water retention.

Cover crops: Planting crops in what would usually be bare soil gives this soil more nutrients and protects it against weather erosion.

While the practise is beneficial for the environment and has proven to be profitable for some, it does have its downsides too. For example, it can cost a lot and is very labour-intensive, so it isn’t accessible for many farmers. It also takes a lot of time to notice the benefits, so farmers who put their time and money into the practise will have to be patient waiting for results.

Consumers are more concerned about making sustainable choices than ever before. In fact, a survey has found that 85% of consumers adopted at least one lifestyle change in 2020 to be more sustainable. But how exactly does this impact UK agriculture?

Well, one lifestyle change that many are making for the sake of the environment is eating a more eco-friendly diet. This has both upsides and downsides for the agricultural industry. An increasing number of consumers are adopting plant-based diets, as they believe them to be better for the environment. This will no doubt have had an impact on dairy and meat farmers, alongside other factors such as the pandemic.

However, it isn’t all bad news, as 86% of the UK population still eat meat, according to data from Finder, and 98.5% still consume dairy milk (AHDB). Another benefit of these changes is that many UK consumers are looking to buy higher quality organic and free range products from closer to home. In fact, Deloitte’s consumer attitudes survey in 2021 discovered that 49% of UK respondents bought more seasonal produce in the previous year, and 45% also purchased more locally produced goods. Clearly consumers still value the work of their local farmers and want to do their bit to help the agricultural sector in their area.