UK agriculture needs a more radical transformation in the face of climate change

Rating B

The UK has a temperate maritime climate. In general, this means that we have mild summers and cool, rather than cold winters, for our latitude. Climate change is expected to give us warmer and wetter winters and hotter and drier summers. There could be a greater frequency and intensity of extreme weather, such as heat waves and rain downpours in the summer. We are already seeing some evidence of this. The heatwave of July 2022 last summer saw temperatures of more than 40⁰C for the first time in the UK; June of this year was the warmest June on record. Wetter winters could lead to more flooding events. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, increasing evaporation levels and leading to drier conditions impacting crop and pasture growth. This greater volume of moisture in the air can also lead to more significant volumes of rainfall that have the potential to damage crops.

The UK currently has a productive agricultural sector. In 2022, 69% of UK land was used for agricultural production, the majority of this being grassland for grazing, as not all land is suitable for growing crops. Of the total croppable area, 52% was used to grow grains, predominantly wheat and barley, with smaller quantities of oats.  Other significant crops grown are oilseed rape, potatoes, sugar beet and horticultural crops. Wheat is by far the most significant crop grown in the UK, accounting for about 30% of daily energy intake per person in the UK and making a significant contribution to the UK economy. Approximately 15 million tonnes are grown annually, and nearly 2 million hectares of land are used for its production, giving some of the highest yields in the world at 8 tonnes per hectare. Wheat is primarily a winter-grown crop and can be sensitive to adverse weather conditions, as seen in 2020 when yields were the lowest since 1981 due to heavy rainfall and droughts at essential points in the growing season. Water stress is already a significant factor for wheat yields in southern and eastern England, so climate change is likely to exacerbate this and predicted wetter winters could prevent access to fields for cultivation and sowing.

The UK is a high producer of animal products due to having a large proportion of land better suited to grass production than crops. These grazing livestock include sheep, cattle, and pigs. By number, sheep represent the most significant proportion of grazing animals, followed by cattle (dairy and beef) and pigs. However, total poultry numbers are the highest of all our livestock.

Climate change projections have been made by UK Climate Projections 2018 (UKCP18), a climate analysis tool that forms part of the Met Office Hadley Centre Climate Programme. It shows how the UK climate may change by the end of the 21st century, which is discussed in Defra’s United Kingdom Food Security Report 2021. It predicts a more than tenfold increase in thermal heat stress for livestock across the UK, impacting productivity, fertility, welfare, and mortality. The region with the most significant risk for thermal stress in dairy cattle is the Southwest of England, with the most dairy cattle. It also highlights that warmer temperatures and higher relative humidity can encourage fungal diseases like potato blight and other pests and pathogens.

The 2008 Climate Change Act requires the publication of a Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) and the actions it will take to adapt to them every five years. The last risk assessment (CCRA3) was published in January 2022 and identified 61 risks and opportunities facing the UK from climate change, some related to farming. The Third National Adaptation Programme (NAP3), published in July 2023, set out the critical actions for 2023 to 2028 that the government and others will take to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the UK. Some key actions relating to farming are as follows:

  • Defra to offer capital grants in 2023 through the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway to fund health and welfare projects and provide equipment to support good animal health and welfare in extreme weather events;
  • Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act passed into law in March 2023 to reduce the regulatory burden on research and marketing of plants and animals, with the aim of breeding crop varieties and livestock breeds with greater resilience to disease or climate change;
  • Defra to pay for the establishment and maintenance of more trees in 2024 on arable and grazing land to provide shade for livestock, increase flood resilience, improve water quality and enhance food production potential;
  • Defra will continue to provide grant funding and support to farmers to invest in farm reservoirs and irrigation infrastructure to increase water storage through the Farming Investment Fund until at least 2024;
  • Defra to fund projects that help the sector adapt to climate change. £270 million funding through the Farming Innovation Programme;
  • Defra to double the number of government-funded projects which support farmers through the delivery of natural flood management.

While these actions address the risks identified in CCRA3, there is an overall lack of ambition and vision. This could have been a good opportunity for a fundamental review of our agricultural strategies to see if they still serve us well in our changing climate with changing priorities and diets, such as the ongoing trend of more plant-based diets. We currently only produce 54% of the fresh vegetables and 16% of the fresh fruit we consume. We could have explored the potential in a warming climate, with fewer touches of frost, for growing more of the foods we currently import. Whilst the UK is largely self-sufficient in grain production and could meet our daily calorie needs should we wish to live on grains alone, it certainly would not provide a healthy, balanced diet. Grain production also has a significant environmental impact due to the lack of biodiversity in conventional grain fields, damage to the soil through ploughing, and use of fertilisers and pesticides, so a reduction in grain farming could offer overall environmental benefits. The Sustainable Food Trust, in their report ‘Feeding Britain from the Ground Up’ dated December 2022, goes much further in proposing that a transition to regenerative farming is required. They propose that there should be a shift to mixed farming systems on croppable land, while crop, fruit and vegetable production would return in some predominantly grassland areas. They also propose moving from intensive to pasture-based livestock production systems and significant agroforestry and woodland cover increases. They are not alone in these views; there is considerable support from other organisations for a transition to more regenerative and sustainable farming practices in the UK.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard UK Country Manager Tracy Davis.


Climate Scorecard depends on support from people like you.

We are a team of researchers providing information on efforts to reduce global emissions. We help make you better informed and able to advocate for improved climate change efforts. Donations of any amount are welcome.