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ATW23: Heat and Drought – University of Essex 

Agri-TechE Article
British Beet Research Organisation British Beet Research Organisation

Industry representatives and researchers from the Essex Innovation Centre at the University of Essex got together to discuss the impact of unpredictable weather patterns in agriculture and to explore solutions that farmers are already implementing in the field alongside emerging academic research. 

What impact does climate change have on crop production? 

The impact of unpredictable and extreme weather events varies from crop to crop. Three different crops – sugar beet, wine grapes and onions, illustrated this variety.  

‘Sugar beet is water demanding’ explained British Beet Research Organisation’s Georgina Barrett. This means that when water is lacking, as has been the case during recent spells of drought, leaves wilt and the sugar content drops. Droughts are particularly damaging early in the season, before the crop has properly established, resulting in increased levels of seedling deaths. 

In onions, climate change means dealing with different types of challenges year on year. Jonathan Bell, a farmer from Stourgarden, described how, in 2022, dry weather and lack of sufficient irrigation limited root growth which caused yield losses of up to 30%. In contrast, 2023’s wet July led to markedly larger onion bulbs which meant a higher percentage of the crop fell ‘out of spec’ for retailers to sell. 

Wine grapes are the fastest growing edible crop in terms of acreage in the UK. But it’s not all rosy for Rosé, reflects Phoebe French from WineGB:

“Climate change is often portrayed as a catalyst for the growth of the [British wine] sector, but it has actually brought about a lot of challenges”  

Warmer temperatures may have led to more reliable grape ripening in the UK, but spring comes with increased risk of frost damage.

Daniel Johns, Managing Director, Water Resources East 
Dr Georgina Barratt, Applied Crop Specialist at British Beet Research Organisation 

How is the industry coping and what solutions does emerging research offer? 

Daniel Johns from Water Resources East stressed how the East of England is already classified by the Environment Agency as an area of ‘serious water stress’. Precision irrigation, rainwater storage and improved soil structure are already in the farmers’ toolbox, but they can’t be achieved overnight.  

Stourgarden is applying organic matter to improve soil health and, ultimately, soil structure; the farm is also trialling drip irrigation to better direct water at the crop, but this currently remains an expensive option.  

The BBRO is investing in soil health research and, together with the University of Essex, is also exploring potential avenues of collaborative research in the areas of plant physiology and photosynthesis to help address the challenges faced by beet growers. Increased collaborations between researchers and industry will be a key contributor in identifying new solutions. 

Research at the University is providing a better understanding of how specific traits like non-leaf photosynthesis in legumes, stomatal density, and light sensitivity cam improve photosynthesis and crop thermal resilience in crops in periods of high heat and drought. 

From left to right top row: Dr. Georgina Barratt, BBRO; Dr. John Ferguson, University of Essex; Mengjie Fan; William Atkinson; Jonathan Bell, Stourgarden; Robert Crook, Innovate UK. From left to right bottom row: Amanda Milliken, Dr. Amanda Cavanagh, University of Essex; Prof. Tracy Lawson, Plant Innovation Centre. 

Conclusions

Climate change will continue to have an impact on crop yields and quality, and periods of extreme weather events will become the norm. But collaborations between research and agriculture will go a long way in continuing to identify solutions.