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Climate change could boost British crops, pioneering field trial shows

Sarah Knapton
Field trials in Norfolk have shown that crops benefit from warmer Octobers 

Climate change could provide an unexpected boost for British crops, a pioneering field trial has shown.

The experiment, carried out by scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norfolk, was set up to investigate the link between warmer Octobers and higher yields of oilseed rape. 

In a first of its kind trial, researchers heated small plots of land to mimic the temperatures that Britain may reach in the coming decades under global warming

The extra heat allowed the crop to flower later, giving weeks of extra growing time which could increase yields by up to 30 per cent. 

Professor Steve Penfield who carried out the trials said the findings were also likely to apply to other field vegetables such as lettuce, and soft fruits.

“By establishing the link between autumn temperatures and yield, our study highlights an example of climate change being potentially useful to farmers,” said Prof Penfield. 

“Cold Octobers have a negative effect on yield if you are growing oilseed rape, and these are now rarer.

“We found that oilseed rape plants stop growing when they go through the floral transition at the end of October, and that warmer temperatures at this time of year enable the plant to grow for longer, giving more potential for higher yields.”

Field trials in Norfolk have shown that crops benefit from warmer Octobers 

Normal Octobers are around 10-12C and Met Office data shows cold Octobers are now much less frequent than they were in the past and are likely to continue warming. 

Temperature is critical for oilseed rape lifecycle because it determines at what point the plant goes through the transition from vegetative state to flowering, with delays in flowering being associated with higher yields.

The results show that temperature in October is surprisingly important for the timing of flowering, and that warmer Octobers result in a delay to flowering the following spring.

For the study the team used soil surface warming cables to raise the temperature of field plots by between 4-8C, simulating warmer October temperatures. 

Lab tests on dissected plants showed that warmer conditions delayed flowers by between 3 and 4 weeks for both varieties.

Scientists heated the ground to mimic the effects of climate change  Credit: John Innes Centre 

The technology used in the study has been used before in natural grasslands to simulate winter warming but the trials are the first time it’s been used on a crop in the field.

“This study was only possible because were able to create the lab into a field to simulate how climate change is affecting UK agriculture,” added Professor Penfield. 

“It’s important to be able to do this because yield is highly weather dependent in oilseed rape and it is very likely that climate change will have big consequences for the way we can use crops and the type of variety that we need to deploy.” 

The research was published in the journal Current Biology.