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Farming and the climate today

  • by JW

“We’ve got to change our food production practices and, likely, our diets.” [Prof David Hughes & Miguel Flavián – Supermarkets in your pocket.]


It’s difficult farming on Dartmoor – and it’s getting more difficult, as this blog from Bea Dunscombe writing for DEFRA shows in their spotlight on the Central Dartmoor Farm Cluster:

The Central Dartmoor Farm Cluster creating bogs and ponds for wildlife, reducing the risk of flooding and the amount of sediment running into streams.

Much of this is moorland, where livestock is grazed, and the remainder is made up of fringe farmland bordered by dry stone walls and hedge banks. These provide a mosaic of different wildlife habitats, including marshy Rhôs pasture (a priority rush pasture), hay meadows and dry grasslands. 

Dartmoor’s climate is cool and wet. One of the main challenges faced by farmers is the impact of climate change; warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers. Climate change will result in increased (and decreased) river flows and an increasing frequency of extreme weather events. 

Therefore, farmers are having to evolve with this by establishing nature recovery areas, adopting natural flood management techniques, and adapting their farm practices so that they are more resilient. One example of farmers responding to this challenge is seen in the work of the Central Dartmoor Farm Cluster Community Interest Company (CIC).

Meanwhile, governments talk about ‘food security’ – but as Dr Charlie Taverner, writing for the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, notes: there is no food security without resilience:

A narrow view of food security tries to maximize production in the short term as a way of avoiding immediate risks (the policy has its roots in national defence). For farms, that means boosting yields, stressing efficiency, and specializing in a handful of products; for processors and supermarkets, that means developing sprawling, just-in-time supply chains controlled by a few big players; for households, that means eating what’s affordable and convenient.

The trouble with this goal is that the risks our food system faces are increasingly impossible to fend off. Climate change is the most worrying. It’s turning what were once occasional weather events, such as blazing summers and ferocious storms, into regular disasters. British farmers have just suffered one of the wettest winters in decades. Autumn-sown crops have rotted, while drilling and other field work has been pushed back and back… 

That’s why it’s so important that our food system becomes more resilient. It’s a lofty word, but boils down to the idea that we should anticipate problems and be able to adapt in a positive, creative way. In concrete terms, building resilience means changing how we farm, from embracing more sustainable, regenerative or nature friendly approaches to shifting what food we grow and when and where works best. Crucially, it also means changes beyond farming. A resilient food system has transparent supply chains based on trust, reciprocity, and a diverse network of local infrastructure. It helps households to eat less heavily processed food, reduce their waste, and find quality, affordable produce. It needs all tiers of government to link food and farming to their plans for climate, nature, and growth, and make more considered decisions about how we put the country’s land to the multiple uses we require.

In a general election year, it’s encouraging to see food security in the conversation. But we have to be aware that the problems of food, nature, climate, and inequality are interlinked. Maintaining the status quo is not enough. We should be pushing political leaders to lay out a bold vision of a fairer, more adaptable food system that works for all people as well as nature. They need to commit to long-term, substantial funding that will help farmers change their businesses radically. And they should empower local and regional governments to reflect the specific needs of their communities.

It’s a simple message: the UK’s food system will only be secure if we make it more resilient.

Finally, Prof David Hughes & Miguel Flavián, with their “quick and witty review of the grocery world developments, with a special focus on the United Kingdom”, look at tough times for food producers: balmy commercial times to come?

Give or take, the UK is about 60% self-sufficient in food, and 75% self-sufficient in “indigenous” food (i.e. the food we can grow in the UK as we’re poor at growing bananas!). In history, we’ve been at 100% (pre-1750’s), under 40% (early-1950s) and up to 65% (mid-1980s). The level of sufficiency is, largely, a function of government price support and trade protection for agriculture (e.g. deficiency payments to farmers in the 1950s, followed on by EU payments from 1973). In February 2024, our Prime Minister announced the establishment of a Food Security Index reflecting the nation’s concern about food availability in an uncertain world threatened by global political instability and climate change. Whether this translates into additional protection for UK food producers it’s too soon to say. Politicians of any stripe must balance the interests of domestic food producers and consumer voter food budgets. But, in a global warming world and the rapid advancement of high tech horticulture (e.g. advanced hydroponics and vertical farming), we’d be surprised if the current low level of UK self-sufficiency for vegetables – 53% – and very low level for fruit – 16% – doesn’t increase substantially through time...

So, once we’ve sorted current supply chain problems and the cost-of-living crisis recedes will it be balmy times for UK and, indeed, global agriculture? After all, the farmers of the world should be on a pedestal: in 1954, the global population was 2.7bn and most were fed; by 2024, our world population is 8.1bn and most of them are fed …. by farmers using the same, even less land than in 1954. Astonishing! But, this Herculean agronomic effort has come with adverse consequences that are contributing to climate change and biodiversity loss. We can see this locally (e.g. David lives by the River Wye polluted by agricultural runoff) and internationally (the Amazon region lost a rain forest area 3 times the size of the UK between 1985 and 2021).

We know the size of the climate change problem and the consequences of inaction. Wise Benjamin Franklin opined “Don’t put off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today”. What’s more, through the series of UN Climate Change Conferences (the COPs), responsible (most) nations have already made promises/commitments on limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, and 16 other world sustainable development goals (UN SDGs). We’re way behind delivering on our promises. In COP28 (Dubai, Nov/Dec 2023), however, most countries signed up to a “Declaration on sustainable agriculture, resilient food systems, and climate action”. So what? Just UN yabbidy yah? Our children/grandchildren won’t thank or forgive us if we sit on our thumbs. In the next 2 COPs (late-2024 and late-2025), we’ve committed to move from vision to firm action plan on agriculture and food by the end of 2025 with targets such as: cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 25% and halving N2O and CH4 emissions from agri-food systems compared to 2020; and ensuring global agri-food systems are net carbon sinks by 2050. None of this is easy but, what is certain is that farmers of our world must be in the vanguard driving change in how we produce food for our growing world. This isn’t agri-politics, it’s a fundamental requirement for the continuing existence of our planet! We’ve got to change our food production practices and, likely, our diets. There’s no messing with the forces of nature and let’s give polar bears bigger beds!