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Agribusiness News March 2024 – Climate Change & Scottish Agriculture

1 March 2024

Oscar Wilde famously quipped that Britain has the best climate but the worst weather. We are indeed fortunate to enjoy a temperate mild climate given our great distance from the equator. Global warming is, however, predicted to change our climate with knock on implications for our weather. For agriculture, an industry where production is so dependent on the weather, what are the anticipated consequences?

What is predicted for Scotland’s climate?

UK climate scientists have modelled how the British climate might respond to four different levels of warming up to 2100. The modelling was granular thereby allowing predictions at a local scale within Scotland.

The scientists concluded that winters are likely to become warmer and wetter especially across north-western Scotland; summers hotter and drier though with summer storms of greater intensity; and sea levels to rise. Essentially a continuation of the change in climate experienced over the past few decades.

Mixed implications for Scottish agriculture

On the downside, warmer weather is likely to expose crops and livestock to more pests and diseases.  For instance, the Barber Pole worm and Blue Tongue virus could reach Scottish sheep flocks. Similarly, the virus-free health advantage held by Scottish seed potato producers might be threatened. And intensive rainfall and flooding as experienced in eastern Scotland last autumn, will probably become more common.

But climatic change may also benefit Scottish agriculture. Carbon dioxide drives plant growth.  So, higher concentrations in the atmosphere plus a warmer longer growing season should raise yields of current crops, including pasture, and expand the range of crops grown. A recent ClimateXChange report notes that Scottish growing conditions may become more like Denmark and northern Germany boosting the oat acreage and making the likes of crop seed and apple production possible.

Scotland better placed than many countries

In many other parts of the world, the impact of climate change will be far more negative. Scientists at Cornell University estimate that climate change since 1971 has reduced agricultural productivity growth by about a fifth. Farmers in the tropics will be especially hit by further global warming as many countries in this region are already hot. Though further from the equator, Brazilian soyabean production is also expected to suffer which has obvious knock-on effects for livestock producers here.

Agricultural production across southern Europe also looks threatened. Analysis by the European Environment Agency (EEA) concludes that land abandonment and desertification could markedly impact Mediterranean countries.

Yet the EEA also judges that growing conditions may well improve across northern Europe. Research and experience elsewhere also points to higher latitude countries benefiting. Soya and maize crops are now increasingly grown on the Canadian prairies. Agribusiness companies are investing in such areas, calculating how global food production could be hit by falling production in lower latitude regions due to global warming.

More concerning is the growing interest in opening up the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere to farming. A 2018 study calculates that a sizeable chunk of Sweden and Finland’s forested lands could be converted to productive agriculture. While the Scandinavians might pass on this opportunity for environmental reasons, the Russians with their vast area of Siberian tundra might be less hesitant. Indeed, the Russian government is already leasing land in its far eastern territories to Chinese, Japanese and South Koreans investors for growing crops.

Fancy farming in Alaska?

If your conclusion from the above analysis is that “a little bit of” climate change, on balance, favours Scottish agriculture, be warned. Recently published Dutch research suggested something far more dangerous could hit the climate in north-western Europe, with catastrophic implications for our agricultural industry.

A major reason that Scotland enjoys a mild climate despite being a long way from the equator, is the “Atlantic conveyor”, an ocean current that shifts warm water from the tropics to the northern Atlantic. Modelling suggests that this critical current could abruptly stop and soon, resulting in a quick and big cooling of temperatures across northern Europe. The Dutch researchers calculate that this outcome is far more likely than previously judged and such an event has occurred in the past.

So, for any Scottish farmers still questioning the sense of improving their carbon footprint, google farming in northern Alaska!

Kev Bevan, 07368 825877

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