As the UEA’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) celebrates its 50th anniversary, scientists have looked ahead to suggest how Norfolk’s farming landscape could change in the next 50 years.
Since the unit was established within the university’s School of Environmental Sciences in 1972 it has become a world-renowned centre for monitoring and modelling climate data.
CRU researcher said Ian Harris said: “We’ve already seen rising temperatures, and advancing germination. This is going to continue, the extent being determined by the actions we take locally, as a country, and globally.
“A best-case, from the current models, would give another one degree by 2100 relative to a 1991-2020. A worst case would be 2-3 degrees, possibly more.
“As we’ve already begun to experience, annual rainfall amounts are not changing significantly. What is changing is the nature of the rain events – more intense, and fewer of them.”
So, what does this mean for the future of Norfolk agriculture?
Andrew Lovett, a professor of geography in the school of environmental sciences said climate effects had to be assessed in conjunction with potential changes in market trends, consumers’ dietary choices and government policy.
“The further you go into the future the more uncertain it gets,” he said.
“But in the next 50 years, I think farmers are going to have to think about how they can adapt their cropping patterns or their livestock management strategies to try and be more resilient to these circumstances.”
They include reducing the use of energy-intensive and expensive fertilisers, improving water infrastructure and considering new types of crops, he said.
Prof Lovett said irrigated potatoes and root vegetables could be increasingly risky to grow in Norfolk if this year’s summer droughts become more frequent – but there could be opportunities to grow crops which thrive in warmer weather.
“One example we have students doing projects on is growing durum wheat [for pasta], the sort of thing that is grown more in places like Italy at the moment, we might find ourselves growing that much more.
“Vineyards is another example that is already happening now.
“You could say the sort of crop that might grow well in the Mediterranean region might well become technically more viable in East Anglia, but a lot of what determines whether people grow it or not will depend on the economics and the policy of doing it.
“Does it stack up in terms of a return to the farm business? Is there processing capacity in the region to make use of those crops? Those things are very important as well.”
“Farm reservoirs and water transfer infrastructure are going to become very important,” said Prof Lovett. “This is a very dry part of the country. If we are going to have more winter rainfall, it is going to become vital to retain it.
“Another big topic now is trying to improve the health of soil, improving the drainage and building up the organic matter. Those are all things that will help make your soil more resilient in terms of either growing crops or grass cover.
“We have seen examples of that this past year. The winter crops got the roots down and have done better in the dry spring and summer, but the spring crops have really suffered.”
Lab-grown meat and vertical farms
Prof Lovett said the future could see greater use of emerging technologies such as indoor “vertical farming”, where crops are grown in stacked layers in climate-controlled buildings, or laboratory-cultured meat as an alternative protein source.
“I don’t think we will completely eliminate meat or dairy products from diets, but I think we will probably be a bit more selective in some cases,” he said.
“It could be other forms of laboratory-based farming, and there are also all these developments in vertical farming.
“They exist now, but they don’t occur at scale. It is not difficult to imagine that some of the existing infrastructure for poultry farms, for instance, is repurposed into some of these other sorts of uses.
“Consumer preferences will drive the markets for all sorts of things, and dietary changes are one of the key drivers for change in land use.”