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Agronomic resilience to tackle climate change

Arable Horizons Climate Change intro slide
Arable Horizons Climate Change intro slide

The frequency of extreme weather conditions are increasing, and it’s only set to get more severe, warned Leeds University climate and food production specialist, Professor Tim Benton. “Climate change will impact every element of agriculture,” he predicted.

Speaking with Professor Benton at the latest Farmers Weekly Arable Horizons lecture – Exploiting climate change for UK farmers - Syngenta UK Head of Technical, Dave King, highlighted that adoption of new agronomic techniques could provide crops and farm businesses with essential resilience to adapt to change.

Environmental stress areas slide

“Farmers are undoubtedly facing greater variability and more extreme weather conditions that pose a real challenge for growing consistently high yielding crops,” he said.

“At the same time there is the demand to feed an ever increasing global population, and the economic constraints of consumers that want to spend less of their income on food.

“In the real world, farmers are going to have to produce more, from less.” Dave pointed out that improving the efficiency of resource utilisation, but generating more yield from the same level of inputs, for example, effectively reduced the carbon footprint of each unit of production.

 “It has to be recognised that agriculture is a currently significant net contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, from fertiliser use, to fuel for cultivations and methane produced by livestock,” he pointed out. “Furthermore, as other industries clean up their act, agriculture is producing a greater proportion.

“As an industry we should be taking steps to minimise the use, or improve the efficiency, of available resources – particularly under the variability and unpredictability of difficult conditions created by climate change.”

Dave King

Stronger, healthier plants are inherently better able to cope with variable conditions, particularly where rooting can be enhanced and improved, he believed. Deep rooting has been especially beneficial for dry autumn conditions or long hot spells in the spring that have been the recent characteristic of the changing climate in the UK.

“We need to look on plant agronomy with a new perspective,” reported Dave. “Where we have hitherto focussed on the leaf and plant structure above the ground, in future we’ll need to look more at the roots and resilience to deal, with environmental stress.”

Click here to watch Dave King's Arable Horizons lecture

Research with the new Syngenta seed treatment, Vibrance Duo, for example, had shown the ability of treated plants to better retain leaf chlorophyll content and photosynthetic activity under drought and water stress conditions and to prevent plants shutting down.

Furthermore, stronger root development gives the chance to plant Vibrance Duo treated seed later in the autumn – which is currently being used by growers to better tackle invasive Black-grass weed populations prior to planting, but could give greater flexibility under changing climatic conditions.    

“We also have to recognise that these benefits will only be fully exploited as part of an integrated approach within the whole farming system that will need to be adapted to changing climatic conditions," he advocated.

"Elements such as better soil management will be crucial to enable the plant’s rooting potential to fully develop.”

Dave cited the adoption of minimal tillage establishment, for example, as a potential route to reduce use of fuel and wearing cultivation parts, whilst also improving soil structure to protect land and water resources. “However, such new techniques also present distinct agronomic challenges and new skills that we need to research, innovate and develop to provide farmers with the solutions they can successfully integrate into their systems,” he added. “That takes time and significant investment to get right.”

He also emphasised that it takes time to develop effective solutions. Plant breeding for drought tolerance, for example, might take many years to identify desirable traits, and then introduce them to commercially viable plant lines – before years of exhaustive tests to confirm reliability.

Hybridisation in wheat crops is difficult, he reported. But continued Syngenta investment is helping to develop significant potential and commercial fruition. Hybrid varieties can develop up to 70% greater root mass – with associated greater uptake and utilisation of available soil moisture and nutrients.

Higher yields under adverse conditions slide

“There are undoubtedly new technologies, such as gene editing (addressed in  a previous Arable Horizons Crop Genetics lecture), which could both speed up and improve the reliability of results and enable the industry to respond better to influences such as climate change. However, that may also require a change in the whole regulatory approach and thinking.”

The industry also needs to work cohesively with new technologies such as mapping, robotics or drone technology (see Arable Horizons Future Technologies video), that could change the way that crops would be managed more effectively under different climatic conditions. “The concept of multiple small robots preparing seedbeds or managing growing crops on fields too wet for conventional tractors, for example, may offer a credible technical solution,” he added.          

Dave also highlighted that Syngenta is also committed to reducing carbon footprint of product manufacture and distribution. At the company European manufacturing plants, including Huddersfield in the UK, for example, greenhouse gas emissions had been reduced by over 20% for equivalent output.

“As part of our Good Growth Plan Syngenta is committed to making crops more efficient to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as making best use of farmland. We ae striving to restore 10 million hectares of degraded farmland globally through improved agronomy initiatives, as well as protecting  and enhancing biodiversity."

Addressing climate change

“These Good Growth Plan initiatives will be important for the industry to improve its resilience for the impacts of climate change.”  

Academic perspective

Professor Tim Benton, influential academic and eminent advisor to the Government, EU and global institutions and UK food retailers, believed that day-to-day weather conditions will have an ever greater impact on everyone’s lives - including farmers and farming systems.

Tim Benton intro slide

“We were always reassured ‘not to worry’ since if the weather was bad in one place it would be good somewhere else, and a global trading economy could adjust,” he said. “What we are in fact finding is that if it’s bad in one place, it will be bad somewhere else too. There is no upside.

“The risk of multiple breadbasket failure is much greater than we thought.” And he pointed out that it’s happening at a far greater pace than originally predicted.

The UK, which had historically been a weather benign climate for food production - not too hot, nor too cold; not top dry or too wet – has seen seasonality eroded at a dramatic rate, he highlighted. It can now experience any season, on any day at any time of the year.

Climate change drivers slide

Once governed by a rounded jet stream that typically saw a smooth movement of air currents and weather conditions transitioned through the seasons, the relative weakening of temperature differential between the equator and arctic north has created more meandering shape controlling influence, which is driving more changeability and extreme weather events.

Tim anticipated the cost of weather related disasters was going to continue to increase year-on-year, not just in financial and social losses, but also at a farm scale in both production costs and physical crop failures. “It’s not a gradual path to change, but more extremes will become the norm.

“With shorter growing seasons there would be a 30% decline in productivity in Europe,” he predicted. “Globally, 25 to 30% of productive capacity might turn-off.”

He added there has been a presumption that northern regions, including the UK, might physically benefit with increased CO2 fertilisation and temperature to raise yield potential. However, at the same time it will be better conditions for disease, such as Fusarium and pests, such as aphids.

Tim Benton B&W

The indications are that UK will experience wetter winters and hotter summers, and when it does rain it will be heavier with issues for lodging, damage and flooding, for example, he claimed. “Although, as yet, we do not fully understand, or predict, what pattern will dominate.

“That makes it difficult for investment, such as irrigation, and the value of agricultural land will change because of its ability to produce.”

He argued that the future for feeding a greater population in the face of climate change should be geared around reducing waste and better utilisation of available calories. Which becomes even more crucial if more land is taken up for carbon capture – with calculations for over 50% of the entire global arable area required.

Tim Benton's climate change conclusions

However, the current huge inefficiencies of levels of obesity, waste and grain fed to livestock indicated land and farmers were capable of producing required food supplies. “Eating sustainably with local supply demands a very different agronomic scenario to a global food supply chain. Farmers will have to adapt accordingly,” Tim concluded.