CROP-NET: Monitoring and predicting the effects of climate change on crop yields

Lead Research Organisation: Rothamsted Research
Department Name: Sustainable Agriculture Sciences-H

Abstract

Climate change poses one of the greatest risks to future food production both in the UK and globally. Around 72% (17.5 million hectares) of the UK land area is farmed, with 37% of this as productive arable land. In 2017, the UK agriculture sector employed 419,000 people directly and generated Gross Value Added of £10.3 billion each year. The general consensus is that climate change will have both significant positive and negative impacts on UK agriculture, and these will vary depending on geographic region. Climate-related impacts may occur through gradual, long-term change, or as a result of more rapid and stochastic changes triggered by extreme weather events, such as droughts and wet winters. In the short- to medium-term, we expect the growth of certain crops, such as maize, to benefit from longer growing seasons and higher temperatures. However, in the longer-term, changing patterns of rainfall, increased evaporation and reduced water availability will all threaten crop production. Similarly, increasingly wet autumns will constrain agricultural production by adversely affecting the timing of farming operations. These could indirectly result in environmental damage, such as soil compaction and erosion. However, considerable uncertainty remains as to the location and severity of these impacts, and the rate of recovery following perturbations. It remains a research major challenge to disaggregate the impacts of climate change on crop production from many other technological and socio-economic factors affecting yield. This uncertainty and a lack of knowledge have left the UK agricultural sector poorly prepared for a future, changing climate. An indication of this was provided by the significant impact of the 2018 summer drought on yields of many major crops.

BBSRC and NERC are currently funding a large national capability research programme "Achieving Sustainable Agricultural Systems, ASSIST" (https://assist.ceh.ac.uk/), with strong support from the farming indusry. As part of this programme, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology has assembled a strong multi- and inter-disciplinary team to develop and test new farming systems. Building on ASSIST, the CROP-NET project aims to scope out the requirements for a robust, real-time crop and grass yield monitoring and modelling service for the UK to provide improved predictions of future climate change impacts. Specifically, we will explore:

1) the feasibility of using Earth Observation data in combination with large volumes of precision yield data collected by the farming industry to provide early warning detection of climate-related risks to crop yields across the UK;

2) the use of fine-scale projections of UK climate under UKCP18 to target locations across the UK that represent the full range of climate change scenarios over the next 30-40 years. This process will consider different climate variables (e.g. temperature, precipitation) at different temporal resolutions (e.g. average summer temperature, drought periods, and heat peaks) that are likely to affect crop growth and yield. In this way, the monitoring of yield will provide data to pick apart the different process by which climate change will affect yields;

3) the key social and economic factors affecting farmer perception of climate change threats, and their willingness and ability to adapt their farming systems in response to this; and

4) the viability of using data from an established, real-time crop yield monitoring network to improve the predictive power of crop growth models to build a demonstrator prediction service, and therefore inform climate adaptation strategies for crop production.

Planned Impact

The CROP-NET project aims to scope out the requirements for a robust, real-time crop and grass yield monitoring and modelling service for the UK to provide improved predictions of future climate change impacts on agriculture. This knowledge will inform a wide variety of end-users in respect of future land management and policy development decisions to optimise food production under climate change scenarios for the UK. Beneficiaries of the CROP-NET outputs will be:

1. Farming and Agri-businesses: CEH and its partners are working with a range of business partners to support end-users in the agricultural sector (farmers and agribusiness) by providing tools to support decision making to optimise food production and protect the environment. Examples include the development of the CEH Land Cover plus series of maps (Crops, Pesticides and Fertilisers), and our partnership with Agrimetrics to develop mobile apps for benchmarking farm crop yields against national and regional data. Farmers and our agri-business partners will benefit from the new knowledge, data and models generated by CROP-NET through the demonstration of a real-time crop and grass yield monitoring and modelling service. The Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board are a key knowledge broker and will be able to promote the demonstrator to the sector and enable better decision making around land management under climate change.

2. Policy-makers and implementers - Policy-makers in Defra, BEIS, and the devolved administrations, and policy-implementer and regulators in these departments, are likely to be amongst the main beneficiaries of CROP-NET research and have a strong interest in its outputs. The UK government has a number of key policies that are focused on reducing the risk from climate change and particularly in the agricultural sector. These include: Defra's 25 Year Environment Plan (25YEP); the new Agriculture Bill; BEIS Industrial Strategy and the Transforming Food Production programme; the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment and the National Adaptation Programme; the Paris Climate Change Agreement; Wales's Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015. Decision support tools, services and information to support the design of policy that benefit society, the economy and the environment under climate change is a key requirement of these beneficiaries.

3. Landowners and Trusts - Large landowners in the UK such as the National Trust and the Crown Estate have strategies and plans to restore and protect the natural environment and adapt to climate change. Agriculture is a key component of their activities, and by working with their farmers the Natural Trust is testing approaches to landscape scale land management to deliver healthy, resilient and productive land. The Crown Estate has set itself ambitious aspirations to be met by 2030 that focus on closing the waste loop using circular economy principles, decarbonisation, climate change adaptation, and the creation of healthy places where their business, communities and natural habitats can thrive. Knowledge, models and tools that can support decision making under climate and land use change will benefit these organisations in achieving such goals.

Publications

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