As climate change threatens to unevenly affect the water availability in the UK in the coming decades, the agricultural sector will need to adapt to new farming practices and more variable weather conditions. Researchers at the University of Reading released a report last week which details challenges faced by farmers.
The report is entitled Water for Agriculture - Implications for future policy and practice and was commissioned by the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE). Conducted by scientists at the University of Reading, the study shows that climate extremes such as drought and flooding are likely to reduce the amount of water for agriculture and horticulture. This will provide a major challenge to farmers, researchers, plant breeders and policy makers across the UK.
According to the report, while climate change is expected to produce higher temperatures, drier summers and wetter winters across much of England, the effects on water availability will vary throughout the country and even, from year to year, in the same areas.
Direct abstractions are likely to become less reliable during the summer and more seasonal; meanwhile, the higher-intensity rainfall in certain periods of the year will produce high runoff, and thus less water will be able to percolate into aquifers, the report says.
Different crop types will be affected in different ways, requiring farmers to change their farming practices or even move their crops to other locations. Crops that need irrigation, such as vegetables and sugar beet in particular, may be forced to shift from the drier east of England to the wetter west of the country. This in turn may affect stock-breeding in these regions.
Agriculture occupies 70% of the land within England, with three-quarters used for grazing livestock and one quarter for cropping. 'Plant breeders will need to incorporate drought resistance and water-logging tolerance into new varieties...planners must be flexible in allowing farms to build reservoirs so that they can conserve winter rainfall for summer irrigation', RASE Agri-Science Director Ian Smith said in a statement.
The study acknowledges and outlines a range of combined solutions to preserve water, reduce water use, make more water available, reduce the direct and indirect impacts of flooding and adapt policy and practice to the changing situation. It also encourages more research into the water implications of climate change on the UK food production, risk management and policy.
'Two things are clear,' the report says. 'First, no single option will be appropriate for every situation. Second, in general, options will not be able to save or provide enough water to address the magnitude of potential changes. The solution is to develop a range of options that address all potential impacts, depending on the severity and potential direction of change.'