Can a new approach help farmers cope with extreme weather?

As 2023 reveals what climate change might look like, regenerative agriculture is under the spotlight.

With this year’s El Niño bringing hotter summers to southern Europe, the UK has suffered wetter weather – with impacts on the country’s farming community.

But while one extreme pattern is a point in time that causes a bad year, scientists tell us that extreme events will occur regularly, perhaps annually.

The World Meteorological Organization recently predicted that average annual global temperatures will reach a threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels within the next five years.

Are emissions an inherent part of agriculture?

Rachel Watson, Head of Agriculture at Lombard, says: “Weather challenges are not new to agriculture, however, we must accept that they are becoming increasingly serious.

“The crops we grow in the UK can change dramatically because changes in temperature and rainfall are crucial factors in keeping crops growing. Does this mean that the types of crops grown and the areas under cultivation will change?”

“Farmers are both victims and villains in this story,” says David King, UK head of technical at global agricultural technology company Syngenta.

“Agriculture is one of the world’s major producers of greenhouse gases, but it is too simplistic to say we should switch wholesale to methods that don’t produce them.

“Farming is much more complex than that, with many variables – it is a challenge working with infinitely variable factors such as soil, raising crops that face biological challenges from weeds, diseases and insects, while reliably producing food that must be of high quality. ” certain quality. Then you add our changing climate.

© Lombard

Can regenerative farming techniques mitigate the effects of extreme conditions?

David believes emissions are an inherent part of agriculture, which by definition must make a profit to be sustainable.

“At the end of the day, people need to be fed. Profitability is a vital part of sustainability in any business. Regenerative agriculture is not just about how we can reduce greenhouse gases and have better impacts on biodiversity.

“It only works as a concept if it’s profitable, because producing food in a sustainable way is also about preserving companies’ ability to feed people.”

Recent Syngenta projects include comparing light and heavy land sites in Leicestershire and Kent, and the contrasting effects of tillage, light tillage and direct drilling.

“With light so you get more biodiversity, more worms, more birds, your carbon footprint is smaller because you burn less fuel. But you can also have a negative impact on crop establishment.”

“If you till a field, you get better soil-seed contact, better germination and a more productive system which gives you a better grain margin.

“But your impact on the environment is greater. So you have to look at things as a whole.”

Data is key in adapting to change

Ultimately, data will enable agriculture to achieve this balance, with agricultural technology playing a key role. “For example, optimal photosynthesis in potatoes only works at temperatures up to 24 degrees Celsius,” says Syngenta’s David.

“If it gets hotter than that, it’s like humans getting a sunburn – the plant gets too much light energy to process it. But if you use science to determine what’s happening inside the crop and how the biocatalyst works, and if you understand those two things, you can produce models that show “You will learn how to get the best results by using only these products in these conditions.”

As the world addresses this problem, regenerative techniques are becoming more popular. Here are attempts to make crops resilient to harsh weather:

  • Agriculture to sequester carbon
  • Reducing soil disturbance
  • Avoid constant rotation
  • Cover crops (which can increase biodiversity, enrich soil, improve water management, and enhance the health of livestock and wildlife).

It is also consistent with growing consumer demand (and thus political campaign) for more sustainable food production – and government grants to farmers, rather than EU subsidies, include sustainable farming incentives.

McCain Foods has pledged to convert 100% of its global acreage from potatoes to regenerative agriculture by 2030.

“As the climate becomes increasingly unpredictable, shifting toward regenerative farming practices is vital to securing the future of the agricultural industry, and we want to support McCain potato farmers who are making the transition toward more sustainable operations,” says James Young, vice president of agriculture at McCain. Great Britain and Ireland.

Can regenerative agriculture work with diversification?

“A lot of farmers have diversified in one way or another,” says Tim Scott, who embraces regenerative farming on his 400-acre Lark Rise Farm in Cambridgeshire and is a trustee of the Countryside Renewal Trust.

His regenerative methods include smaller field sizes, leaving excess winter residue, beetle banks, wildlife strips, waterway maintenance, and planting 4.5 miles of hedgerows.

It brought a site teeming with plants and animals, including bee orchids, water voles, gray partridge, chaffinch, and larks — but, Scott says, not a profitable endeavour.

“I’m doing it for biodiversity and it’s been hugely amazing, but I rely on alternative income and I don’t imagine many tenant farmers can afford to do that,” he says.

“One of the problems with regenerative farming is that heads tend to compact and light tillage leaves hollows in the ground – I would say 5% of the land I planted with spring crops was not productive.”

Such issues will affect farmers’ uptake – which is perhaps why Syngenta’s David King describes regenerative agriculture as “a process, not a solution”.

“We are building technologies that accumulate over time,” he says. “There is no single solution because there are many factors.

“Of course, farmers must change their habits but they need to think dynamically, because not a single aspect of a truly effective regenerative approach can be addressed without science and innovation.

“Every stage of the seed, from planting to nitrogen for nutrition, crop protection and efficient harvesting, is about tools that we are still developing, and to achieve maximum impact, they need precision.

“This will become the driver for better environmental outcomes and the fundamental sustainable process of agriculture – less travel around fields, less use of synthetic, size-based pesticides, better interventions that are less disruptive to biodiversity, less soil disturbance, and reliable sensors and forecasts.

“Agriculture will be able to adapt to climate change and extreme annual weather patterns with farmers having access to more accurate data than ever before.

“Applying scientific knowledge is the key to mitigating impacts, and we need as much information as possible so we can look at everything as a whole and make the best decisions possible. In the end, everyone has to eat.”

Learn more about the latest trends in agriculture.

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