Climate change? It’s not all bad

Whoa – what’s going on? Minus ten degrees, snow, a biting wind; winter arrived very suddenly as predicted. Will it last? I sincerely hope not! As usual, we are all told to stay in bed and not venture downstairs, as it’s far too dangerous.

I attended a meeting with others from industry last week, to hear government’s latest plans to deal with climate change; they call it building resilience to climate change.

The government has published its ‘Climate Change Risk Assessment’, using Defra’s ‘cutting-edge’ UKCP09 climate projections. Starting with health risks from hotter summers (the heat wave of 2003 could be average temperature by 2040); we could have an increase of between 580 – 5,900 deaths. However, we could have reduced cold related in the winters by between 3,900 – 24,000 deaths; not all bad news then..

Pressure on water resources is undoubtedly a huge worry for all of us, especially in the South East, and so is flooding if as predicted heavy rainfall becomes more of a problem. Ecosystem risks is the third issue the government are grappling with, as weather and temperature affects the timing of life cycle events, species distribution and ranges. Now whilst National threats also include huge risks for UK insurance industry and energy demand to cool overheating buildings, there is no doubt that there are also big opportunities.

Reduction in energy demands for heating, the opening of arctic shipping routes due to ice melt, an expansion of tourism in the UK, and in agriculture we could enjoy longer warmer growing seasons, new crops which could be grown, wheat and other crop yields would increase, and positive changes in grassland productivity. We should also consider the effects of climate change on other countries on which we are interdependent. Droughts in Russia for example, floods in Australia and Thailand, affecting prices of wheat, steel, coal and electronic components.

The government is looking at a national adaptation programme; cringingly devising ‘co-creating’ solutions (with others). The government is right of course to look at infrastructure, all the various business and government sectors, health, and the natural environment, but it is no surprise to me that the public are taking little notice. Government is irritated that we don’t all take this more seriously, but considering the doom and gloom of the economy, with most people grappling with the cost of living, especially fuel, not to mention job security, rising unemployment and winter (!), it is no surprise to me that people are not engaging. More bad news simply is not wanted currently.

The government itself had a wonderful opportunity for the general public to ‘buy-in’ to climate change and the low carbon economy, with the solar panel initiative, which did get many people excited about producing natural electricity and making a few quid out of it. Unfortunately, the government had got its figures wrong (as the NFU had been pointing out for months), being over generous on the payments for solar, and having not got it right, it should have swallowed the pain. But we all know the story, the money was pulled when many were in the planning stage, and all confidence was lost, as indeed was the government’s case in court, when action was taken against them. What an own goal.

It’s the same with other alternative energy areas, anaerobic digestion, bio-fuels, bio-mass, and wind power. There is huge disagreement and uncertainty within government itself, with the Department of Energy and Climate Change wanting all this to go ahead, and Defra worrying about purpose grown crops, cost of food, landscape and bio-diversity; and many in the Conservative party are fundamentally against alternative energy, due to cost for business, and belief that there is little need; when the need arrives it will be met is the reasoning.

The farming press and media is full of news concerning a serious new disease called ‘Smallenberg’ (named after a small German town where it was first discovered), a virus which is similar to ‘Blue-tongue’, affecting cattle, sheep and goats. There are cases in Germany, Holland, Belgium, France and the UK; it’s arrived without warning, probably with midges last summer/autumn. The problem is that it surfaces when sheep get closer to full term pregnancy, as it causes abortion, and deformities in lambs.

The outbreaks in this country are in the South of England, and farmers are asked to report all suspect cases. We can’t rule out at this point that it might be spread from animal to animal, which of course would make the situation much more serious. There are only a few cases in the UK so far, and we should keep things in proportion, but we do expect to see more cases as the lambing season gets under way. We have only found it in sheep in the UK so far, but it does affect cattle, symptoms being loss of milk production, deformed calves, fever, loss of body condition and diarrhoea. There is no vaccine, and it would most likely take two years to develop one.

Given that 2011 was a year of spectacular commodity price increases, what have we in store for 2012? As a general comment, two things are likely to influence supply and demand; an increase in production as farmers around the world respond to higher prices, and less speculation in commodity markets as a result of lower prices.

Although prices are generally expected to be lower than 2011, when weather, currency, political uncertainty all came together; huge spikes then proving attractive to speculators and investors, which of course push them higher; they will not fall to 2008 levels.

Things change in farming and the food industry, without everyone being aware of some of the far reaching consequences. In the dairy sector, we have seen low fat milk take over in retail sales, with cream being separated and sold to provide extra income initially, but today milk is the by-product, as cream prices dictate the margins of processors and hence the milk price for farmers. Cheese is also becoming the by-product of whey, where the potential value for future profitability of both processor and farmer rests. Milk and cheese are commodities in the main; therefore the value has to be made from growing and more valuable markets.

This is a real challenge to us all. We do not have competitive manufacturing in this country to match those in mainland Europe when it comes to cheese. We do have state of the art plants in liquid milk, but of course the demand for liquid milk is static, and export opportunities are not there. In both liquid milk and manufacturing we see large multinational companies buying up British processing and rationalizing it within their empires.

We have seen this happen in the pig industry, as Dutch and Danish multinationals took over the processing sector. The big question that is unanswered is does it matter? I suspect that it does.

Gwyn Jones