Farming practices must change to maintain UK food production in more extreme climate say Government advisers on climate change – 10 July 2013

Climate change presents a risk to the supply of important goods and services from the land, says a new report published today by the Government’s advisers on climate change adaptation. Without action this could undermine our ability to meet increased food demand over the next decades.

  • The report reviews key ecosystem services provided by the land, specifically, supplying food and timber, providing habitats for wildlife, storing carbon in the soil and coping with sea level rise on the coast, it finds that:
  • There could be a significant shortfall between water demand and supply for farming by the 2020s. Crop production is already concentrated in water stressed areas. In a dry year the shortfall could be nearly half the water that agriculture currently consumes. In addition, current farming practices may be depleting some of the country’s richest soils.
  • Three-quarters of coastal habitats that provide important natural flood protection are at risk. The combination of sea level rise and man-made flood defences traps coastal habitats. This will escalate flood defence costs, which are already expected to rise by 60% to £200 million by 2030.
  • The majority of upland peat in England is currently in a degraded condition due to draining, burning and overgrazing. This is putting billions of pounds worth of carbon at risk from release into the atmosphere from climate change. Such decline will also reduce the ability of peatlands to regulate and filter water flows.
  • Three-quarters of the remaining natural wildlife habitat in England is small and fragmented, making it more vulnerable to climate change. The proportion of our most important wildlife sites in good condition has fallen from 42% to 37% over the last decade. 60% of native species are experiencing long-term decline in populations.

Lord John Krebs, Chair of the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change said: “Our analysis shows we are putting future agricultural production at risk, jeopardising coastal habitats that provide vital flood defences, squeezing wildlife habitats, and threatening billions of pounds worth of carbon stored in our peatlands.

There is an important opportunity for the UK as a food producer in a world subject to climate change. However this is at risk under current farming practices.

The Government should act now to develop and implement policies to ensure that we make the right land use choices to ensure we are resilient to climate change.”

The report finds there has been very limited progress addressing risks from climate change and highlights where further action is needed:

  • The Government needs to press on with water abstraction reform, such that there is a price for water that reflects its scarcity. In addition, reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy should promote water efficiency measures on farms.
  • The rate of coastal realignment needs to increase five-fold from 6 km of coastline each year to 30 km each year in order to reach local authority goal to realign 10% of coast by 2030 and 15% by 2060. For some stretches, one-third of the coastline will need to be realigned. This requires joined-up action from local authorities and the Environment Agency. There also needs to be a clear process for compensation arrangements for land owners.
  • The area of degraded peatlands undergoing restoration needs to triple. Two-thirds of upland peatlands have no clear restoration plan despite clear economic case in many locations. The Government needs to strengthen incentives to ensure the value of the carbon and water regulation services in land use decisions.
  • There has been no increase in proportion of protected wildlife habitat sites in good condition in last ten years, despite 8,000 km2 of habitats under restoration and the majority of protected sites having management plans in place. Current regulations must be better enforced and effective market mechanisms developed to place an economic value on nature.

Notes to Editors

  • This report is part of a series of annual progress reports by the Adaptation Sub-Committee to assess how the country is preparing for the major risks and opportunities from climate change. Together these reports will provide the baseline evidence for the Committee’s statutory report to Parliament on preparedness due in 2015.
  • Our report in July 2012 assessed preparedness for two of the largest risks identified by the Climate Change Risk Assessment: flood risk to people and property and availability of water for households and businesses.