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Could new approaches help farmers handle extreme weather?

We explore the key considerations of regenerative farming.

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With this year’s El Nino phenomenon bringing a hotter summer to Southern Europe, the UK has endured wetter weather – with impacts for the country’s farming community.

But while one extreme pattern is a blip causing a bad year, scientists tell us once-extreme events will happen regularly, and possibly annually. The World Meteorological Organisation predicted recently that global average annualised temperatures will hit a threshold 1.5C above pre-industrial levels within the next five years.

Are emissions an inherent part of agriculture?

Rachael Watson, Head of Agriculture at Lombard, says: “Weather challenges are nothing new in farming, however, we must accept they are getting more extreme. The crops we grow in the UK could alter significantly as changes in temperature and precipitation are critical factors in sustaining crop growth. Will it mean the types of crops grown and regions grown in will change?”

“Farmers are both victims and villains in this story,” says David King, UK Head of Technical at global science-based agtech company Syngenta. “Agriculture is one of the world’s major producers of greenhouse gases but it’s too simplistic to say we should switch wholesale to methods that don’t produce them. Farming is a lot more complicated than that, with so many variables – it’s a challenge working with infinitely variable factors such as soils, raising crops that face biological challenges from weeds, diseases, insects, while reliably producing food that has to be of a certain quality. And then you add in our changing climate.”

Could regenerative farming techniques mitigate the effects of extreme conditions?

David believes that emissions are an inherent part of agriculture, which has by definition to make a profit to be sustainable. “Ultimately people need to be fed. A vital part of sustainability in any business is profitability. Regenerative agriculture is not just about how you can reduce greenhouse gases and create better impacts on biodiversity. It only works as a concept if it’s profitable, because producing food in a sustainable way is also about keeping businesses going to be able to feed people.”

Recent Syngenta projects include comparison of light and heavy land sites in Leicestershire and Kent, and the contrasting effects of ploughing, light tilling and direct drilling. “With a light till you get more biodiversity, more worms, more birds and your carbon footprint is smaller because you’re burning less fuel. But you can also have a negative  impact in crop establishment. If you plough a field over, you get better soil-to-seed contact, better germination and a much 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 the key in adapting to change

Data will ultimately enable farming to strike that balance, with agritech playing a fundamental role. “For example, optimum photosynthesis on potatoes only works in temperatures of up to 24C,” says David from Syngenta. “If it gets hotter than that, it’s like humans getting sunburn – the plant is getting too much light energy to process. But if you use the science to establish what’s going on within the crop and how the biostimulus works, and if you understand those two things, you can produce models that show you how to get the best results by using these products only in these conditions."

As the world tackles the problem, regenerative techniques are becoming more commonplace. The following are attempts to make crops resilient to extreme weather:

  • planting for carbon sequestration
  • minimising soil disturbance
  • moving away from fixed rotation
  • cover cropping (which can increase biodiversity, enrich soils, improve water management and enhance the health of livestock and wildlife)

It also tallies with an increasing consumer demand (and therefore political campaign) for more sustainably-produced food –  the government’s grants to farmers to replace EU subsidies include the Sustainable Farming Incentive. McCain Foods has pledged to turn 100% of its global potato acreage to regenerative farming by 2030.

“Given the increasingly unpredictable climate, the shift towards regenerative agriculture practices is vital to futureproof the farming industry, and we want to support McCain potato farmers who are making the transition towards more sustainable operations,” says James Young, vice president of agriculture at McCain GB&I.

Can regenerative farming work with diversification?

“Many farmers have diversified in one form or another,” says Tim Scott, who embraces regenerative farming at 400-acre Lark Rise Farm in Cambridgeshire and is a trustee of the Countryside Regeneration Trust. His regenerative methods include smaller field sizes, leaving over-wintering stubble, beetle banks, wildlife strips, waterway maintenance and planting 4.5 miles of hedgerows. It’s brought a site teeming with flora and fauna, including bee orchids, water voles, grey partridge, linnet and skylarks – but, says Scott, it’s not a lucrative endeavour.

“I do it for the biodiversity, and that’s been phenomenally spectacular, but I do rely on an alternative income and I don’t imagine many tenant farmers could afford to do it,” he says. “One issue with regenerative agriculture is that headlands tend to get compacted and the light tilling leaves hollows in the ground – I’d say 5% of land I’ve sown with spring crops has not been productive.”

Such issues will affect take-up among farmers – which is maybe why David King at Syngenta calls regenerative agriculture “a process rather than a solution”. He says: “We’re building technologies that stack together over time. There’s no one solution because there are so many factors. Of course, farmers should change their habits but they need to think dynamically, because not one aspect of a truly effective regenerative approach can be tackled without science and innovation.

“Every stage of a seed, from planting to nitrogen for feeding, crop protection and efficient harvesting is about tools we’re still developing and to truly maximise the impact you need precision. That will become the driver of better environmental outcomes and the core sustainable process of agriculture – less travelling around fields, less application of volume-based synthetic pesticides, better interventions that are less disturbing to biodiversity, less soil disturbance, reliable sensors and forecasts.

“Farming will be able to adapt to climate change and extreme annual weather patterns by farmers accessing ever more precise data. Applying scientific knowledge is the way to mitigate the effects, and we need as much information as possible so we can look at everything as a whole and make the best decisions we can. Ultimately, everyone has to eat.”

Find out more about the latest trends in agriculture.

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