Government scientists have looked at projected consequences of global warming across the country up to 2080 and have identified a number of potential scenarios, with water scarcity and changing patterns of rainfall posing the greatest problems.

Speaking at a climate change and agriculture seminar, Lord Whitty, Minister for agriculture, said: “As we all know, agriculture is particularly affected by changes in temperature, rainfall and extreme weather, such as drought and storms, and these may pose an increasingly serious threat. Of course, extreme weather is already within the experience of most farmers, but it is the increased frequency of these events under future climate change that presents greater risks to farm businesses.”

He warned that the problem could include scenarios such as East Anglia drying out and production of crops and cattle moving westward from there as the soils can no longer support them due to increased drought stress. At the same time crops are more likely to suffer damage and destruction from increased floods and extreme events.

In addition, there would be increased heat stress in livestock with major consequences for milk yield, as well as changes in the life cycle of parasites and diseases having implications for health and welfare of animals.

At a press briefing, Elliot Morley, Minister for the Environment, warned that farmers will increasingly have their water-abstraction licences revoked as competition for water use increases. Mr Morley said that water abstraction was “out of control” in some areas. He added that farmers would have to start changing crops to fit in with new rainfall patterns as well as employ better irrigation technology.

Coupled with that, he said they should offset risks by improving water conservation measures such as installing winter storage reservoirs to reduce the need for abstraction and rainwater harvesting for horticulture buildings.

Due to the expected drying out of the East of England, and the competition from new housing plans (see related story), Mr Morley predicted this would be the area for greatest investment in reservoirs and flood protection measures.

He compared the future scenarios to the current situation in southern Mediterranean countries where agriculture and tourism are in constant competition over scarce water resources.

Despite the gloom and doom scenarios predicted, there was one ray of light in the situation. Mr Morley said the changing weather patterns meant that the British wine industry would no doubt see a big boom in profits as conditions become far more favourable for them. Ideal conditions for champagne growers are expected to be seen along the south coast in places like Dorset, while their traditional growing lands in France become unsuitable.

Whether this makes up for the numerous agricultural losses that will result, however, remains to be seen.

By David Hopkins

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