Despite much of the focus of 2020 being on the Covid-19 pandemic and the challenges that it has thrust upon the world, the health crisis has come as a stark reminder that climate change remains a significant threat to humanity. This is especially relevant to the agriculture sector, where the changing climates are presenting new problems to farmers in terms of ensuring that crops can survive long periods of adverse weather, as well as withstand the pests that are allowed to thrive under such conditions.
As well as this, while much of the world has been focused on how the Covid-19 pandemic has progressed, trade negotiations between the UK and the European Union have been continuing in the background and with little under three weeks remaining until the end of the year and the lapsing of the transition period, it remains unclear as to whether a trade deal will be in place before Brexit is fully enacted, with no deal still a real possibility following recent talks in Brussels between the prime minister and the president of the European Commission.
While the agriculture industry is innovating to help combat the effects of climate change, the Brexit issue is one that ultimately is out of the hands of the industry with the ball in the court of politicians, and Peter Clare, managing director of agronomy services provider Environmental Crop Management, is insistent that a Brexit outcome which will enable frictionless trade with the continent to continue is absolutely essential for the sector.
Appearing on the Leaders Council podcast to share his thoughts, Clare said: “We provide an agronomy service which helps manage crop health and guarantee high yields while minimising the harm to the environment. A lot of those suppliers who provide our materials are based in Europe, so it is vital that we have frictionless trade with the continent. It also works the other way in terms of getting produce out of the country. There can’t be delays because food is a sensitive product, it can’t just sit there, and it matters that things are delivered on time and it is essential that free-flowing food supply continues.”
Clare revealed that he was concerned that many Britons have become complacent about food supply and where food is sourced from, and the outcome of Brexit will be key to making sure that there is no disruption to what is a delicate supply chain.
“Food supply tends to be taken for granted. Food does not just appear in the supermarket; it comes from farms and fields and it is sourced from a long-drawn-out process. We are far too complacent in terms of where our food comes from and the outcome of Brexit will be key to ensuring the supply chain is not disrupted.
“Stability within society is dependent on a stable supply of food. We have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic that agriculture is an essential industry; it cannot be turned on and off and any idea that the sector can simply go into hibernation is a nonsense. Politicians need to remain aware of this and realise how precarious our food supply really is: at any one time there is seven days of food in the supply chain only, and some of the biggest political upheavals in human history have all been linked to a shortage of food!
“I do hope that the Brexit issue will be resolved by politicians and if we are faced with the wrong outcome, I worry that any disruption could be disastrous for the country. We will continue farming but we need politicians to allow us to continue doing what we do best and providing food for the Great British public.”
Moving on to address the effects of climate change on the industry, while the issue is once more beyond the control of most sector operators, Clare revealed that there are many innovations taking place to mitigate the effects of changing weather conditions and ensure that the UK continues to have access to a thriving food supply.
He said: “In our industry, we encounter weeds and pests that put our food at threat every day of the year and our arm of the sector caters for that and prevents the losses that would occur if we did not look after crops properly. I do feel people do not realise the care that agronomists take in looking after our food and the environment, and climate change is one of the greatest challenges we are currently facing. We are seeing every year now a series of extended periods of weather that are not conductive to crop growth, and in 2019 we saw the wettest autumn which prevented the planting of winter wheat which is the main arable crop in the UK, so we had the lowest planting season on record. This was then followed by a wet spring and a very dry period in the summer of this year, which saw many spring-grown crops damaged.
“To combat these issues, we are working with teams at Manchester Metropolitan University and Lancaster University in exploring treatments which are used in the Middle East and using them on crops here to help them cope with the summer heat, as well as bringing in systems to deal with waterlogged crops from the adverse conditions of the colder months. We are always looking to deal with the climate, how to get crops to grow in adverse conditions and help them survive seasonal changes. We are also now encountering pests and diseases which 15 years ago would not have been seen in the northwest of England but have now appeared here because of the change in climate, so farmers are facing challenges linked to climate change all the time.”
Notably, the exceptional work that Environmental Crop Management has put in to face these issues head on has not gone unnoticed.
Clare revealed: “We have worked on mitigating the effects of climate change by reducing carbon footprints and growing bigger crops with new techniques we have developed, which saw us awarded a Green Apple award that was presented to us in the House of Commons.”
Reflecting on the impact of Covid-19 on international supply chains which businesses like Environmental Crop Management rely upon, Clare pleasingly revealed that any pandemic-related disruption to his business had remained minimal, thanks to the incredible effort international suppliers have put in to help keep the agriculture industry running.
Clare explained: “It has been quite easy for us to continue to do our job because agriculture is quite an isolated industry anyway. We are quite isolated out in the country as are farmers themselves, so we operate a very socially distanced industry. We have been walking the fields where needed to gauge what treatment certain crops have needed, all we have done differently is not come into direct contact with farmers where normally we would have. Goods have continued to be delivered, we have not encountered too many logistical issues, and that is owed to the unbelievable work our international suppliers have put in to keep stocks and materials coming in that we can then get to the farms; all the more vital therefore that Brexit does not pose another barrier!”
To help supply materials and resources to farmers in a safe manner, Clare recalled that it was a simple process to ensure that delivery drivers made drop-offs in a staggered manner to avoid coming into contact with others.
“We have run our business to ensure that our drivers deliver materials where needed in a staggered way, minimising contact, and this was a simple process. In many respects the pandemic has not had a great impact on a business.”
Clare once more paid tribute to the efforts of the agricultural industry in continuing to operate despite the difficulties it has faced, and reiterated his warning that as a key industry it cannot be placed into a state of hibernation and that the UK must make itself as self sufficient as possible over the coming years, particularly so with the end of the post-Brexit transition period drawing ever closer.
“The biggest challenge we have all risen to was the logistical issue of getting key materials and resources from suppliers and we had to do that because farming is an essential industry: crops still need to be grown and we cannot just stop agriculture and turn it off because we all need to eat.
“Those that are disconnected from where their food comes from also need to understand that we cannot just rely on importing food, especially with the Brexit issue in mind. We need to be as self-sufficient as we can over the coming decades to make sure we can keep people fed and we will be at the forefront of that effort. One of our slogans is that we look after crops as a business, but another is that we feed people, and that will not change regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in.”