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DEFRA’s agriculture and climate change research and development programme, which is worth around £5.6 million in this financial year, helps build understanding and evidence about the threats and opportunities that climate change presents, and about
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what farmers can do to reduce emissions. It includes research on climate change mitigation in agriculture, the impacts of climate change on farming, including both livestock and arable sectors, and the vulnerability of UK agriculture to extreme weather events, about which my hon. Friend spoke. This is within the 2007-08 DEFRA budget of £70 million for sustainable farming and food science, including animal health and welfare.

Specifically in relation to plant science, our research and development programme is looking, for example, at the vulnerability of crops to extreme weather events, which are expected to increase with climate change; at the long-term plant breeding challenges faced by the plant breeding sector; at how to develop crops for energy that will support our climate change and renewable energy targets, at a price which is competitive in the market for renewable energy; at how to increase commercial yields of biomass crops; and at how to determine and demonstrate the most economical systems for growing biomass crops, consistent with the protection of the environment and, of course, with minimal use of pesticides and fertilisers.

The direct effects of climate change on crops has been well researched in DEFRA research and development. Further research is being commissioned to build on this. Current considerations suggest that climate change impacts do not threaten the viability of UK agriculture as a whole, but particular regions and individual farm businesses need to be aware of both the risks and the opportunities. In decades to come the impacts of climate change will be more defined, with winter rain becoming more sporadic and intense, and summer rain more scarce.

Crop yields are affected by many factors associated with climate change, including temperature, rainfall, carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, extreme weather events and climate variability. Models developed through the research that the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council and DEFRA have funded on plant science and crop development are producing predictions based on possible climate scenarios. These can be updated as more reliable models of climate change become available.

Potential threats from climate change to farmers growing crops include prolonged and more frequent droughts, changes in rainfall distribution, increased risk of new crop diseases or some pests becoming more serious, and increased vulnerability of crops to variable or extreme temperatures. Soils are also likely to be affected by variation in temperature and rainfall. Some soils are likely to form impenetrable caps, increasing the risk of run-off and subsequent pollution events and flooding. Cracking in soils after dry periods may prevent rainfall from being retained and further increase subsequent droughts. Hotter, drier summers may also affect subsoils and make it more difficult for plant roots to penetrate and grow.

On the other hand, rising temperatures and longer growing seasons will provide opportunities for farmers to grow new crops, such as energy crops, and supply new markets. For some commodities, the UK could have an advantage compared with traditional competitors. As the climate changes, some crops will become easier to grow and others harder. Landscape
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features may also change—for example where crops grown for fuel replace those grown for food or set-aside.

We have a continuing programme of research looking at the contribution of different land management practices to climate change objectives—both adaptation and mitigation. Through previous work, which has been published, the UK is well served with information on impacts.

We need to work with farmers and land managers, and with organisations such as the Rural Climate Change Forum, to ensure that farmers have the information and advice they need to turn the results from climate change research into practical action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as to adapt to these impacts and make the most of new opportunities.

Basic plant science in the UK is funded by BBSRC rather than DEFRA. The BBSRC investment includes a large proportion of the £30 million per annum spent at its research institutes—Rothamsted, the John Innes Institute in Norwich and the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, and there are also many projects funded at universities related to plant science. Much of that research investigates the fundamental processes in the life of plants that climate change is likely to affect. By understanding how these responses work and linking them to the genes involved in well- studied “model” plant species, scientists and subsequently commercial plant breeders will be able to breed characteristics into crops to help them tolerate and continue to grow under more extreme conditions.

In addition to DEFRA’s specific agriculture and climate change research, the UK spends about £5 million annually on research and development connected with the genetic improvement of UK-grown crops. This will underpin the development of crop varieties better suited to future climates and new crops and markets. The DEFRA research links with a specific BBSRC crop science initiative, which seeks to apply results from fundamental plant science to crops. These together form a basis for collaborative work with industry—with plant breeders and farming organisations.

For major field crops, including wheat, oilseed rape, biomass, pulse crops and oats we have invested in resources and techniques to underpin plant breeding by creating crop genetic improvement networks that focus on traits that will help commercial breeders introduce varieties that can improve the environmental footprint of production systems or help to address the likely stresses on crop plants from climate change. Similar projects are in place for grass and forage and some horticultural crops.

The oilseed rape genetic improvement network—OREGIN—provides an example of the collaborative work in progress. Researchers based at Rothamsted, the John Innes Institute, Warwick university and elsewhere are all involved. Since it was established in 2003 it has provided a focus for the research and stakeholder communities associated with oilseed rape and brassica crops. The project has provided reference and experimental material and built expertise as a basis for studying aspects that may be affected by changing temperature, such as oil profiles and risks from attack by pests and pathogens, and the more efficient use of inputs, such as nitrogen fertiliser.

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Scientists in our leading institutes are therefore working, often in collaboration with others, to understand and model how crops will perform in a range of future possible climate scenarios. They are also working in conjunction with others to develop crops that are currently well adapted to the UK or have potential here so that they remain productive as the climate changes.

The threat of increased summer drought to crops and water availability for irrigated high-value crops in eastern England is of particular concern. Research commissioned by DEFRA is looking at the volume of water used by farmers and growers to irrigate crops and its impact on water resources. This will include work to develop more efficient ways of using water in the light of future climate change.

Climate change and increasing global trade also bring additional risks from pests and diseases to which current crop varieties may be more susceptible. Improved genetic resistance to threats that could become more serious will prevent future damage and losses without the need for additional pesticide applications.

As winters become warmer and wetter, conditions are likely to improve for certain crop pathogen species. Some pathogens such as species of Fusarium that cause ear blight in cereals are not yet major problems in the UK. These may become an increasing risk, especially if conditions also favour the production of grain maize, which is an alternative host. These fungi are associated with the production of mycotoxins in grain, which presents a health risk to humans and to animals.

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Besides concerns about predicted changes to some pests that may become more serious, there are also concerns that organisms of conservation found in farmed environments may in contrast become rarer, and the need to devise sustainable conservation strategies, for example, in conjunction with agri-environmental schemes, will be greater.

Dr. Gibson: Considering all this activity that has gone on, does my hon. Friend think that the agricultural industry knows about it, or does it go on without its knowledge, or even interest?

Barry Gardiner: My hon. Friend characterised farmers who were “conservative”—I am sure that he used that word adjectivally with a small “c” rather than to denote any political association. In fact, I have been pleasantly surprised by farmers’ willingness to see themselves increasingly as land managers, landscape managers and environmental managers who are prepared to get their remuneration not from the subsidies for production that we used to, and in some cases still do, pay as a result of the common agricultural policy, but as a result of the public goods that they are creating. They are increasingly ahead of those in many places in the rest of Europe in appreciating their role to that effect—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at four minutes to Eleven o'clock.

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