Extreme weather contributed to losses of up to £161m for Scotland's farmers in 2018, offering a sign of the challenges climate change will create for businesses, even in temperate climates
Agribusiness is frequently cited as a key culprit in fuelling global warming, but a new study of farming in Scotland shows how the industry's profits could suffer in turn from the effects of climate change.
Extreme weather contributed to losses of up to £161m for Scotland's farmers during 2017 and 2018, according to a new report commissioned by WWF Scotland and produced by the energy consultancy Ecosulis.
Entitled The Economic Impact of Extreme Weather on Scottish Agriculture, explores how recent heat waves, floods, and cold snaps, many of which are thought to have been made more likely by climate change, are directly impacting the bottom line for farming businesses.
The report found that the biggest financial impact hit sheep farmers, who lost an estimated £45m as the 'Beast from the East' and resulting cold temperatures roared over grazing grounds during lambing season.
Beef farmers suffered from an increased expenditure on feed, estimated at £28m, as cattle were kept indoors during extended periods of bad weather and grass growth was suppressed by a dry summer.
Meanwhile, arable farmers also struggled, as cereal crop yields fell as a result of poor weather conditions at key points in the season, leading to losses of £34m.
These soaring and unexpected costs had a direct impact on consumers, as wholesale prices of a series of staples including carrots, lettuce, and onions rose by up to 80 per cent.
Scottish farmers also experienced building damage due to heavy snow and strong winds, while NFU Mutual reported an increase in fires during June and July due to the exceptionally hot dry summer.
"Farmers are increasingly on the frontline of climate change, struggling with ever more unpredictable seasons and extreme weather," said Dr Sheila George, Food Policy Manager at WWF Scotland. "This report gives a snapshot of the huge financial toll."
Previous studies have suggested that agriculture in temperate climates such as Scotland could see net benefits from the effects of a warming climate. Last year, a report from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that this could "exacerbate existing inequalities and further widen the gap between developed and developing countries", as richer northern nations see yields increase and nations across the tropics see yields fall sharply.
"Climate change impacts will be location specific, with significant variations across crops and regions," the report, titled the State of Agricultural Commodity Markets, said. "Arid and semi-arid regions will be exposed to even lower precipitation and higher temperatures and, consequently, experience yield losses. Conversely, countries in temperate areas, many of which have developed economies, are expected to benefit from warmer weather during their growing season."
But studies have shown that the overall impact of climate change on agriculture globally is likely to be hugely negative, while WWF Scotland's study suggests that even in temperate climates increasing extreme weather will result in new risks for the sector.
"There is certainly evidence that yields of some crops could increase and that we might be able to grow a greater range of crops here," WWF's Sheila George told BusinessGreen. "But we will also be contending with greater risks of pests and disease, water stress, and the frequency and severity of extreme weather events are predicted to increase.
"This means that farmers need to be supported to better adapt and build resilience into their farm businesses. This is why we are calling on the Scottish Government to provide greater leadership, advice and support to farmers, so that where any positive side effects of climate change do arise they are in a position to benefit, but so they are also better buffered from the extremes that climate change might bring."
One farmer who experienced these extremes first-hand is Douglas Christie, owner of Durie Farm in Fife on Scotland's east coast.
"I had lower crop yields of wheat, spring barley and spring beans," Christie said. "Poor weather in spring meant I couldn't put the cattle out to grass as early as usual and I consequently used more conserved forage and straw followed by poor grass growth in the summer, until August, when welcome rains arrived."
The fear for Christie and his colleagues is that the past two years could become the norm in the coming decades, leading to increased costs and risks right across the agriculture sector and the many parts of the economy that rely on it.
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