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Protect livestock, introduce new crop types and improve farming mechanisation to cope with the UK heatwave

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As the United Kingdom basks in its longest heatwave for more than 40 years, it could be time for a change of strategy for the country’s agriculture industry.

It’s the topic that everyone is talking about this summer. For two months, the UK has seen temperatures consistently above 25 degrees in many places – a weather pattern that we haven’t experienced for decades. However, while many Britons make the most of this unusually prolonged period of sunny weather, the impact of the heatwave on the country’s agriculture industry could be troublesome, with many experts and those with farming jobs warning that extra support needs to be provided to prevent public health problems and food shortages.

A recent study found that the impact of changes in climate and environmental factors are leading to a change in the way vegetables are growing – claiming that the world’s supply of vegetables could decrease by at least a third by 2050 if no action is taken. Experts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are warning that a shortage in vegetables and crops such as legumes and lentils could have a detrimental effect on public health if key elements of a wholesome diet become harder to purchase regularly. Crops at particular risk are soy beans, which could see a decline of almost 30% over the next 30 years, and everyday vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli and potatoes which are at particular risk in the short term. Lettuce has already been affected, with a shortage being reported across the country and prices of those on sale starting to rise.

In July 2018, the UK government issued a warning that, should the hot and dry weather continue, it may be necessary to implement a hose pipe ban throughout the country to save on vital water supplies. It’s no secret that, in prolonged arid conditions, water supply becomes scarce, impeding the growth of crops and leading to sometimes devastating droughts. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says that common crops such as lentils and soy beans are particularly at risk from the changing climate and the agricultural challenge this presents. This is not just the case in the UK – which experts claim has been experiencing particularly visible signs of climate change – but throughout the entire world. The report advises agricultural organisations and governments to take urgent action.

Comparisons to the 1976 drought

The last time Britain saw a heatwave of this strength and longevity was in 1976, when the government was forced to issue emergency drought procedures. The impact on farming was, at the time, catastrophic, and The Drought Act 1976 was brought in to reduce general water consumption and increase water supply to the industry, as farmers battled to produce crops and keep their livestock hydrated. The impact of this event forced the government to offer food subsidies in an attempt to maintain affordable living. Prices of crops and meat became sky-high due to the shortage, with many families struggling to put healthy food on the table. Potatoes were a staple diet item back in the seventies, so their shortage had a significant impact on family living.

More than 40 years later, although we are better equipped to deal with droughts – and the implications are not likely to be as severe – farmers are experiencing many parallels to that infamous summer in the seventies. Despite heavy rainfall earlier in the year which has lessened the impact of this summer’s dry weather, farmers are worried that if the heatwave continues at this level, this year’s harvest is likely to be considerably smaller. Although prices are unlikely to rise astronomically as a result of the heatwave, we could notice a difference in the supply of everyday vegetables, along with a slight increase in their purchase price.

Livestock risk could become animal welfare issue

It isn’t just vegetable supplies that are in danger from the effects of the prolonged heatwave; livestock – particularly cattle – are vulnerable to heat and shortage of water.

An article published in The Independent at the end of June this year revealed that UK farmers were struggling to keep their livestock healthy and hydrated in the heat, due to water shortages and lack of rain [https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/jun/28/heatwave-forces-uk-farmers-into-desperate-measures-to-save-cattle]. Many told the newspaper that they were receiving little help from water suppliers and local councils.

As the heatwave continues, there is more pressure on the UK government to step up support measures for farmers throughout the country. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says that this is about more than rationing water, or increasing water supplies to farmers; there are various other steps that must be taken to respond to climate changes and evolving environmental factors. Increasing carbon dioxide greenhouse gas in the atmosphere could be one way to increase crop yields, however, this benefit is likely to be cancelled out by other environmental factors. Other more likely solutions to the problem could be to encourage farmers to vary the crops they produce, introducing new varieties that are more accustomed to newer environmental conditions. Also, improvements to agriculture procedures and mechanisation are urgently required to protect existing vegetables.

As for taking care of livestock, farmers can deal with temperatures regularly exceeding 30 degrees by collecting water from various sources, including drinking water, rainwater and reservoirs. They are also being urged to make arrangements with any neighbours that have boreholes or wells. Defra advises that, in order to reduce the amount of water that livestock need, farmers can reduce feed, end egg production in poultry, dry off animals in lactation stage, and avoid salty food.

If farmers are still struggling to get enough water to their animals, Defra advises transporting them to an area where there is more water available. In any cases of emergency, farmers should contact the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), their local council or the RSPCA for advice.

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