Climate change is making the Nordic Region warmer, and we’re experiencing more intense periods of drought and more extreme rainfall. This not only changes the conditions for agriculture, with reduced quality and new plant diseases, but also provides opportunities for growing new plant species, as researchers behind the Nordic university network point out.
The Nordic university network NordPlant – A Climate and Plant Phenomics Hub for Sustainable Agriculture and Forest Production in Future Nordic Climates – is working to promote sustainable agricultural and forestry production in the future Nordic climate.
Erik Alexandersson is a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and leader of NordPlant. He says that the biggest problem posed by climate change for agriculture and forestry is the lack of predictability.
“The unpredictability is the biggest challenge at the moment. This last summer is a good example. First, there was a long drought at the beginning of the summer in May and June followed by huge amounts of rain later in the summer. What we call micro-droughts, when we experience three to four weeks without rain, are especially critical for agriculture, not least at the beginning of the season. It then affects the whole season. This results in smaller crops, but even more important is that the crops are of poorer quality.”
Alexandersson says this is negative for both producers and consumers:
“Both flour and fruit have different classifications, and when a product goes from class A to class B, that has significant consequences. For instance, when this happens with apples, they can no longer be sold as apples. They can only be used to make juice, which leads to huge income losses. In such a scenario, it might be that agriculture should de-prioritise quantity and instead focus on high-quality, resilient crops.”
Alexandersson explains that the Nordic countries face similar problems, but not necessarily at the same time.
“Within the Nordic Region, there’s a bigger divide between north and south than east and west, and it’s in the south that climate change is manifesting itself first. This concerns new insects, as well as fungi and bacteria that we aren’t used to seeing in the Nordic climate. Just as we can talk about invasive species, we can also talk about invasive pathogens, by which we mean plant diseases that can affect agriculture, which first became evident in Denmark. It means that Denmark is serving a bit like a litmus test for what the rest of the region can expect. This is very useful because we can then determine early on what measures are needed in the northern areas.”
What should the Nordic countries do to address these challenges?
“At NordPlant, we’re working a lot with what’s called phenotyping and remote sensing of plants. This involves observing and recording various plant characteristics to understand their growth, development, and response to different environmental conditions. Using modern, specialised instruments, this can be done remotely, without direct contact with the plants. We believe that phenotyping and remote sensing of plants will be crucial for the Nordic countries. This will help us to adapt Nordic agriculture to future climate scenarios, increase demand for self-sufficiency, and improve nutrition. By doing this, we can monitor and better understand what affects yield and quality, including crop diseases and the spread of new invasive species which are expanding northwards due to climate change.”
Facts: Phenotyping and remote sensing in NordPlant
Phenotyping crops involves observing and recording various plant characteristics to understand their growth, development, and response to different environmental conditions. This includes the analysis and quantification of characteristics such as plant height, leaf area, flowering time, disease resistance, and crop potential.
Remote sensing uses specialised instruments to collect information remotely, without direct contact with the plants. The sensors can be mounted on satellites, drones, or ground-based platforms such as robots. At NordPlant, phenotyping and remote sensing are carried out in laboratories and fields at the various universities, which specialise in different methods. The Biotron facility at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp, for example, has 24 different experiment chambers – climate chambers, daylight chambers, greenhouse chambers for precision experiments, and growth chambers for plant materials – while Plant PhenoLab at the University of Copenhagen has a fully automated system for the cultivation, movement, monitoring, and measurement of plants.
Alexandersson also points out that climate change doesn’t only come with negative effects:
“An important effect of climate change is that production is actually expected to increase in the Nordic Region. We’ll get a longer growing season, and we can grow different varieties and new and larger crops. One such example is sorghum, which is now possible to grow in the southern Nordic Region,” he says.
“Another effect is the greater potential for Arctic agriculture. Now that there are fewer frosty nights, the growing season is getting longer, making it possible to grow new species in the northernmost areas. We’ve had trials with potatoes in the Tromsø area, and with the fantastic summer they had this year, it yielded very good results.”
Learning from each other
NordPlant is a Nordic university hub, meaning that it’s a long-term partnership between Nordic universities, colleges, and vocational schools that are pursuing greater co-operation in the Nordic Region through a consortium. This hub consists of researchers from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, the University of Helsinki, the University of Copenhagen, Lund University, and the University of Tromsø.
For Alexandersson, this co-operation has been valuable.
“The most important thing has actually been the physical and conceptual exchange at the five universities. The field has developed a lot in recent years. We’ve gained larger data sets and better tools for image analysis, and we’re using newly-developed sensors. It’s been especially important to exchange ideas and methods, and the handling of data. NordPlant has worked very well in this regard, with a fresh exchange of ideas outside the old structures. Another aspect is that we learn from each other and are able to raise awareness among the Nordic countries in a positive way. It’s been very rewarding.”