A technical seminar organised by The Farmers Club and British Crop Production Council last week discussed the challenges and opportunities that climate change could bring for farmers, food production and the environment.

Farmers and their advisers are well aware of the ability of climate to disrupt their plans after 2019 – the fifth wettest year on record – disrupted autumn plantings, advised seminar chairman Stephen Howe. This is part of a longer-term pattern – the UK has experienced 8 of the highest annual temperatures and one of the lowest in the last decade – clearly agriculture is in the frontline of climate change. Unpredictability of weather patterns is likely to be the most difficult factor to cope with.

Dr Stephen Penfield, group leader of genes in the environment at the John Innes Centre (JIC), warned that variation in the weather would be more difficult to manage than the warmer temperatures. But plant and crop varieties will need to adapt to compensate.

Models show that within 60 years, the UK climate could be similar to that in mid-Portugal now, he said. This would mean a longer growing season, with UK horticulture able to provide more fresh produce and displace imported fruit and vegetables. New crops would also be possible – expect a growth in viticulture.

Yields of spring sown root crops such as sugar beet would improve, but a trend to wetter autumns could make winter cereals more difficult to establish, while drier springs could reduce grain and straw yields.

Grass should benefit from a longer growing season/grazing period, but the prevalence of summer drought could reduce grass growth in the south east. This could see UK dairying move northwards up the country.

JIC researchers are working to identify crop varieties with more resilience to warmer temperatures – for example, the oilseed rape variety Castille has proved more resilient to temperature than three other popular varieties. This type of research can inform future breeding programmes.

The NFU’s climate change adviser Dr Ceris Jones outlined the NFU aspiration for the industry to become net zero by 2040 from its present position of contributing 10% of UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The Union has a three-pronged approach towards this goal. Firstly, to reduce emissions through higher productivity – raising the efficiency of livestock and crop production through better genetics, nutrient handling and precision farming techniques, the greater uptake of digital tools and investment in and energy efficient buildings and equipment. These would be marginal gains, but incremental progress spread widely across the UK agrifood chain would help meet the net zero goal.

Secondly, agriculture is well placed to increase carbon storage through soils, plants and trees. This could be helped through financial incentives to plant and manage shelter belts, bigger hedgerows and manage farm woodland.

Lastly, the role of renewables and the wider bioeconomy in removing CO2 from the atmosphere while providing new materials and energy sources – clear new business opportunities for UK farmers and their suppliers. The NFU says 40% of its members have already invested in renewables from solar PV to anaerobic digestion.
Dr Jones estimates that the first and second prongs could deliver 50% of the carbon savings needed, with the third prong the remaining half.

Mark Tucker, business development manager and head of agronomy for Yara UK, addressed the reduction of fertiliser’s carbon footprint to benefit crops and the environment.

Fertiliser manufacture is estimated to cause 1% of global GHG emissions, particularly from ammonia and nitric acid production to make nitrogenous fertilisers. By contract, agriculture causes 10% of the world’s emissions – including 1.25% from mineral fertiliser release and 6.8% from livestock and manures.

Reducing the carbon footprint of fertilisers will benefit crops and the environment, and Yara along with the rest of the sector is investing in solutions from inhibitor treatments to green ammonia. This is a global problem – not one that can be exported to other regions, he advised.

Abatement technology to reduce N20 emissions during nitric acid manufacture was developed by Yara and installed in its plants from 2009 – and is now widely used by other manufacturers. This has cut N2O emissions by 90% since then, with scope to reduce it still further. Abatement technology means that average EU AN manufacture now ‘costs’ 3.42kgCo2 equivalent – but Chinese production is three times this at 10.5 kgCo2. Sustainable farmers should check whether fertiliser is abated when ordering product, advised Mr Tucker.

There is already promising progress with green ammonia production using electrolysis of water rather than the energy intensive Haber Bosch process. But achieving fully carbon-free ammonia manufacture would reduce urea production – as well as the supply of CO2 co-product used in the fizzy drink industry. Therefore, ammonium nitrate is likely to dominate the nitrogen fertiliser sector in a greener future.

Achieving zero carbon nitrates by 2050 will also require huge investment to replace current manufacturing systems based on cheap fossil fuel energy. Governments may tax or even prohibit fossil fuel-based production to meet their future green targets – but this will raise fertiliser production costs and prices.

Net zero targets will also require a reduction in field ammonia emissions and greater use of green energy in distribution and food chains. Digital tools for precise application timings and delivery will be important with more focus on precise applications to manage soil health. Yara is already working with IBM to improve climate change measures and has set its own intra-company financial incentives to drive progress.

The move away from cheap energy will have to be recovered from the market, Mr Tucker concluded. But what is the true cost of fertiliser – is it too cheap now, after its impact on the environment is costed in? Yara is committed to reducing its carbon footprint where it can, but at the same time it must remain competitive and profitable.