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Conserve Water and Soil Fertility to Increase Productivity under Climate Change

15 July 2013

ANALYSIS - Higher temperatures and longer growing seasons in the UK could provide opportunities for farmers to increase productivity.

This in turn will allow them to benefit from potential rising global food prices.

However, the farmers will need to also take into account the productive capacity of the land because of limited water resources, the loss of soil fertility or the persistent presence of pests and diseases according to a new report from the Committee of Climate Change.

The committee has called on the British government to continue with its plans to bring in incentives for the efficient management of water on farms.

It says that advice to farmers should be “strengthened and streamlined” to ensure they are able to make the most of the latest research findings on preparing for climate change.

The concern in the UK is that much of the cropland is in areas that are already stretched as far as water is concerned.

“These pressures are likely to grow from the combined effects of climate change and increased demand from economic and population growth,” the report, A Balanced Response to the Risks of Dangerous Climate Change, says.

The report warns that if the economic and population growth together with the effects of climate change continue, then a gap could grow between water demand and supply.

The climate change committee predicts that by the 2020s the gap between water supply and demand in dry years could be equivalent to the water currently used by agriculture – 120 billion litres.

It adds that the reform of the water abstraction policy must ensure that the price of water reflects its scarcity.

“This is required to incentivise improved irrigation efficiency and investment in on-farm storage and contribute to ensuring sufficient water supplies in the future to meet growing agricultural demands,” says the report.

The report also turns to the fertility of the soil, which it maintains is being depleted by current farming practices.

“This is particularly the case in the East Anglian Fens, where some recent estimates suggest that the fertile peat topsoil could largely disappear within a few decades<” the report says.

The climate change committee says that some action such as the reduction in ploughing is taking place, but it warns that the uptake in conservation measures is lowest in the areas of the highest quality soil, which will put long-term productivity at risk.

The report’s authors also say that the UK’s agricultural efficiency could be lagging behind the rest of the EU because of a lack of spending on research.

“Effective communication to farmers of new knowledge would enable them to respond better to increased weather variability, new pests and diseases and growing pressures on water and soil resources.”

The report calls for eco systems to be maintained and kept in good condition to help ease the effects of climate change. This includes action on maintaining habitats for wild life and also enhancing flood protection and coastal defences.

It says that there must be action to increase water use efficiency and storage and on the sustainable management of agricultural soils, including restoring carbon-rich peat soils in the uplands.

The proposals have been embraced by campaign groups.

Friends of the Earth’s Head of Campaigns Andrew Pendleton said: “Climate change poses a devastating threat to our environment, food supplies and security, which could trigger future economic crises.

“Urgent Government measures are needed to ensure the nation is better prepared to deal with the consequences of climate change, along with action to tackle the cause – starting with a genuine commitment to decarbonise the UK power sector by 2030.”

Chris Harris

Chris Harris

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