August 8, 202311 Minutes

Warming bells: Time to future-proof farms for overheating

It’s that time of year again: warmer months with longer days, plenty of vitamin D, and summer cereals are growing nice and tall, painting the fields shades of green and gold. Exciting signs that months of hard work are finally paying off. But in recent years those fruitful signs of summer harvest have become synonymous with worry and dread, with the world having hit its hottest week on record this July according to preliminary figures from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

Studies reveal a troubling reality across Europe: 61% of soils are in an unhealthy state with soil degradation from the loss of soil organic carbon (53%), the loss of soil biodiversity (37%), and the risk of peatland degradation (30%). This lack of soil health further hinders yields through erosion, runoff, and reduced water retention during droughts and floods also made more frequent by climate change. Those environmental impacts are also accompanied by economic loss as depleted soils lower plant performance, impacting profitability and wasting fertilisers.

The necessity of taking action to grow in harmony with nature now to maintain yields and profitability for farmers can no longer be turned down as “tomorrow’s problem”.

Field of sunflower grown regeneratively in Romania.

In Poland, where the country has one of the lowest water resources in Europe, more frequent droughts and steppe formation is becoming a reality. At the beginning of June, the Institute of Fertilization Cultivation and Soil Science found agricultural drought in nine voivodeships, with extreme drought prevailing in parts of the Mazowieckie, Wielkopolskie and Kujawsko-Pomorskie voivodeships, as well as in many places in the Podlaskie and Warmińsko-Mazurskie voivodeships. According to the data of the Polish Economic Institute, the largest average annual yield losses occur in the province of Wielkopolskie, Mazowieckie, Kujawsko-Pomorskie and Lubelskie voivodships and concern in particular, the cultivation of cereals and oilseeds.

In Romania, last year, drought caused losses of over 1 billion € for the Romanian agricultural sector, with 800,000 of the country’s 5.4 million hectares of crops being impacted. In total contrast, this spring it just hasn’t stopped raining in Romania causing delays​​ in spring planting operations and added unpredictability when it comes to yields.

But also in Scandinavia, the signs of global warming are starting to be felt with the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) having issued a level 2 alert for “dangerous weather” (on a scale of three) for the province of Jutland, due to the heat wave expected this summer with temperatures that could exceed 28ºC. For example, the 2018 summer drought in the Nordic region reduced cereal yield by 40%–50%. Challenges are being amplified by the uncertainty and the expected long-term effect caused by climate change’s impact on hydrological variables like precipitation, temperature, and soil moisture.

However, in the face of this challenge, agroecologist Nicole Masters offers a thought-provoking assessment; “The drought-flood system is not (only) due to climate change, but due to management”. In short, we find ourselves with a challenge in the face of more frequent extreme weather events. But also a key opportunity to build resilience in farming systems to harness the power of nature rather than fight with it – maximising co-benefits and minimising risks on farms.

Time to future-proof farms for overheating.

Heat resistant crops

As droughts are becoming more frequent and severe, some crops known to be more resilient to extreme weather and heat are helping farmers combat water scarcity while ensuring resilient yields. One of those crops is millet which is often referred to as a climate-resilient crop because it can grow on arid lands with minimal inputs and maintenance, is tolerant or resistant to diseases and pests, and is more resilient to climate shocks than other cereals. Another is durum wheat, a variety which may appeal to growers in the East as it performs well in hotter, drier climates.

Regenerative agriculture

While the climate crisis is making rain patterns more erratic and unpredictable, experts encourage people to look not up to the sky, but down at the ground.

Regenerative farm systems are designed to work in harmony with nature, while also maintaining and improving economic viability by following three key principles:

  • Minimal soil disturbance
  • Permanent soil cover – either by a crop, a cover crop, or crop residues
  • A varied crop rotation

Regenerative agriculture has many recognised natural and financial co-benefits ranging from reducing soil erosion, increasing soil organic matter (SOM) and improving biodiversity, to
reducing fuel consumption due to fewer cultivation activities, and reducing the need for expensive fertilisers by preventing runoff and improving nutrient cycling. But it also can improve water-holding capacity and resistance against flooding and droughts.

Speaking to the Food Tank, Roland Bunch, Founder and CEO of Better Soils, Better Lives tells that soil organic matter (of which carbon is the main component) is a critical component of water storage.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) estimates that for every 1 percent increase in organic matter, the amount of water available to plants increases by 25,000 gallons per acre.”

Hear it from the farmers:

Hans Poulsen is employed with JD Agro Cocora – one of the leading agricultural companies in Romania. Cultivating 17,000 hectares across three counties, JD Agro Cocora has been using no-till technology on its fields since 2018.

“We realised pretty quickly that soil moisture was really important in these climate conditions,” explains Hans, “so we adopted practices that disturbed the soil as little as possible.” “But I guess it really began before that with the heavy drought we experienced back in 2012. That’s when we said, ‘Okay, we need to do something different’.

In Constanța, where we’re farming in more hilly areas, we can also see a significant difference in how the soil absorbs water when it’s raining,” he says. “If we have heavy rainfalls in our fields, there’s almost zero runoff compared with the neighbours’ fields, which are ploughed. And we have big rains, their soil is running out onto the roads. It’s very clear.”

Richard Davey farms 1600ha in South Oxfordshire regeneratively – including 488ha in an Agreena soil carbon programme.

“Cover crops help cut leaching from the soil because it is not left bare. The soil is in even better condition, increasing absorption of rainwater and hopefully will become more resilient when we have dry summers.”

Mitigating climate change to keep the world within 1.5C heating target

Although it is important to address the symptoms, targeting the cause of the increase and intensification of weather extremes is crucial.

This is particularly relevant for the agricultural sector as beyond being severely affected, it also is responsible for about a third of human greenhouse gas emissions globally. A diagnosis which although grim holds in itself a huge promise and a clear path to mitigating climate change as marginal improvements to agricultural soils around the world would store enough carbon to keep the world within 1.5C of global heating,

“Using better farming techniques to store 1% more carbon in about half of the world’s agricultural soils would be enough to absorb about 31 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide a year, according to new data. That amount is not far off the 32 gigatonnes gap between current planned emissions reduction globally per year and the amount of carbon that must be cut by 2030 to stay within 1.5C.”

Fiona Harvey Environment Editor for The Guardian

The time for climate action is now. The impact of climate change is no longer an abstract concept difficult to visualise or grasp, but a reality that affects nature, our economy, food production, and livelihoods. With farmers being on the front lines. The time for wide-scale adoption of regenerative and nature-based solutions is now. It is a task we have an opportunity to tackle together by building collective knowledge, supporting and rewarding farmers’ transition to regenerative practices and investing in nature-based solutions that help mitigate climate change but also help maintain and restore the ecosystem services the planet provides for us.

August 8, 2023By Anne-Sophie Gay11 Minutes