In the U.S., the discussion on climate change has been slow in coming, with most folks all the way up to President George W. Bush saying that hotter summers, colder winters and harsher hurricane seasons are part of the planet's natural cycle.

In Europe, however, the last couple of years have seen the discussion of climate change go from the scientists' realm to everyday conversation at the dinner table. And now in the United Kingdom (UK), tackling climate change is a topic as important to the agricultural community as feed and equipment prices.

In December, the UK's National Farmers Union (NFU) teamed up with the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to survey 385 of its members on their views about climate change. Astonishingly, 60% of farmers surveyed said climate change was already affecting them and 70% said climate change would affect them in the next 10 years.

The question then became: So what do we do about it?

To raise awareness, NFU and various partners got together to educate farmers and producers on climate change. They've published 14 fact sheets that explain everything from the basics of climate change to how it will affect weather patterns; from how climate change will affect agriculture directly to suggestions for individual operations — from beef producers to dairy farmers, horticulturalists to cereal farmers.

Of those surveyed, more than 60% say climate change will create opportunities for their operations and 72% claim to already be taking steps to combat climate change on heir farm.

“It's not just global warming that's having an impact. It's a whole range of climate issues — from water availability to temperature variances — that will have an impact on productivity of all agriculture,” says NFU livestock advisor Alastair Johnston.

Climate change and you

In the UK, agriculture accounts for 7% of the country's greenhouse gas emissions, which are said to be the leading cause of climate change. Most of the talk outside the agricultural sphere is about carbon emissions, something most commonly associated with cars. That's what has led to the sudden introduction of biofuels and flex-fuel cars, trucks and buses and booming ethanol production in the midwestern U.S.

But agriculture's impacts on climate change are different. Rather than carbon emissions, it's methane and nitrous oxide that bear watching. In fact, the NFU says UK agriculture accounts for 39% of the country's methane emissions and 57% of its nitrous oxide emissions, but only 1% of its carbon emissions.

“In mainstream media and among government spokespeople, there's no hesitation in pointing the finger at ruminants as greenhouse gas emitters,” says Duncan Pullar, cattle and sheep industry development manager at UK's Meat and Livestock commission (MLC). MLC works with the British meat and livestock industry to improve its efficiency, competitive position and marketing prospects. Its work is funded through checkoffs collected on sheep, pigs and cattle slaughtered for human consumption or exported live.

He adds that methane emissions per kilogram of beef produced has come down significantly over the last 20-30 years, and by 15% in just the last 10 years. Now MLC is undertaking a major study exploring the “life-cycle analysis” of beef production in the UK. It's looking to see how much carbon and other greenhouse gases are released into the air for every kilogram of beef produced. It will compare UK emissions from beef production to their South American and North American counterparts.

Johnston says “food miles,” or how far a product has traveled from where it's grown to where it's consumed, is becoming a major issue. It may be cheaper to buy beef from Brazil, but the distance the beef has traveled from the farm to the plate can be measured in the carbon released into the atmosphere during the journey.

“It may be more expensive to buy beef from someone down the road, but it's obviously better for the environment in terms of food miles,” he says.

NFU fact sheets on climate change explain how average temps will rise 1.5 to 5°C. over the next century, depending on what greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere in the next few years. Warmer temps aren't necessarily bad, but producers need to be aware of what it means — hotter, drier summers and colder, wetter winters, more droughts, fewer frosts or cold spells, and more extreme weather.

For farmers and producers, it generally means longer growing periods. In the UK, growing periods by the year 2080 will increase by at least 30 days in the north near Scotland and may increase by as much as 90 days in the south, around Cornwall and Kent. Longer growing periods could mean more cropping, so lower feed costs. Feed costs will also go down as more farmers switch to producing biodiesel from canola, meaning much more meal on the market.

Longer growing seasons also mean more grass availability and longer grazing periods, but there's also the question of how to manage water. Even now, cities in the UK have to ration water as early as March, a practice that likely will spread to rural areas as the years go on.

“This year in the UK, there was a lot of rain and now warmer weather, so there's a lot of grass. That's good for feed costs, but then there's the question of finding rentable grazing areas as well as the impact on your food miles,” Johnston says.

Water availability may affect what animal producers raise in the future as well, he says. For example, since sheep consume most of their water from the plants they eat, they will be a better fit for areas of less water availability than a cow-calf pair. If that becomes the case, it will then be up to producers to explain to consumers how raising lamb is better for the local environment than beef.

Hotter summers and colder winters may also mean that forage species will change. If producers aren't paying close enough attention to the feed mix in their own pastures, they may find their herds aren't getting the protein or mineral content they assumed they were. By closely monitoring grazing areas on a summer-by-summer basis, the NFU suggests producers will be better able to supplement their herds before health issues arise or productivity decreases. In areas where summers are getting hotter, monitoring animals for heat stress may also be necessary.

Take at look at your genetics as well, because NFU says producers may need to introduce breeds better able to adjust to extreme weather changes or more suitable for hotter, drier areas. NFU has even gone so far as to suggest looking at breeds that produce less methane so your herd's direct impact on climate change itself is reduced.

Johnston says consumer demand may also change with warming. In warmer climates, the demand for red meat is lower, while demand for white meat and fish goes up. The reverse can be said for places where the weather gets cooler. What's important, he says, is making sure the industry stays at a critical mass so it can adjust to consumer demand.

Carefully analyzing your feed mix could also go a long way to reducing methane as well. Pullar says the MLC has commissioned a study on nutritional management to determine which animal diets produce less methane.

As once-dry areas become wet, and colder areas become hotter, pests and diseases will adapt, as well — probably more quickly than herds or managers can keep up. Pullar cites a perfect example of last year's outbreak of bluetongue virus in the Netherlands. The disease traditionally is only found in the Mediterranean region, but as global temps rise and regions warm, these kinds of new outbreaks are more likely to happen.

“We've been debating climate change internally for about two years, and first commissioned related work about a year ago. Tackling climate change is now a recognized part of MLC policy. It's in the consciousness now and is a recognized thought process in everything we do,” Pullar says.

Meghan Sapp is an American freelance writer based in Brussels, Belgium.

The UK handbook

Here are some effects of warming temperatures on UK cattle production, and some remedies, as provided by Farming Futures (www.farmingfutures.org.uk) is a collaboration between the National Farmers Union, Country Land and Business Association and the Applied Research Forum (representing the agricultural and horticultural checkoff boards).

Effects

  • Reduced appetite due to heat stress may limit performance (e.g., reduced body condition and fertility problems).

  • Changes in grassland species may change forage plant communities.

  • Potential increase in the length of disease seasons and introduction of new pests and diseases may increase veterinary and medicine costs.

  • Feed composition may need altering to meet changing nutritional requirements if appetites are reduced due to hot weather.

  • Potentially less forage available in some regions due to limited water and heat stress on plants.

Remedies

  • Improve grazing management to reduce soil erosion. Protect vegetation to maintain carbon storage capacity by ensuring constant ground cover with productive grass or forage.

  • Selective animal breeding for disease resistance, methane emissions and production efficiency (e.g., growth rates and carcass traits).

  • Select animals better suited to changing climates, while maintaining production levels and optimizing feed costs.

  • Collect rainwater for use as animal drinking water during dry periods.