Zeroing in on a carbon-neutral future for farming

We’ve never been more aware of the impact of our actions on the environment around us, and of the need to act now to avert a climate crisis.

Getting to “Net Zero” – achieving a carbon neutral state by reducing greenhouse gases and offsetting emissions – is the key goal of this year’s COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. The UN has set a target date of 2050 for this to be accomplished, but in the world of agriculture, the ambition is even greater.

At the Oxford Farming Conference in January 2019, Minette Batters, President of the National Farmers Union (NFU) set out her vision for achieving net zero for agriculture a decade earlier, in 2040. The NFU’s recent report – Achieving Net Zero – Farming’s 2040 goal – sets out how the industry can “do more” to reduce the 45.6million tonnes of greenhouse emissions released by the agriculture industry each year – a figure that represents about a tenth of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

In her introduction to the report, Minette Batters says: “Every farm will start the journey to net zero from a different place and will need a unique action plan. The NFU believes that the agricultural sector is very much part of the solution to decarbonising the UK economy and achieving net zero and we are working on proposals for pilot schemes to introduce policy incentives to bring to life net zero for farmers and growers. But we will only be able to achieve our carbon neutral goal with concerted support from government, industry and other key groups to help deliver this challenging, but achievable, ambition.”

Here are some key takeaways from the NFU’s report:

There’s no one-size fits all solution

The NFU points out that unlike in other industries, only 10 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by agriculture are from carbon dioxide – around 40% is nitrous oxide and 50 per cent is methane. Clearly, the agriculture industry must plough its own furrow and come up with unique solutions to effectively play its part.

The report warns there is no “silver bullet” and a portfolio of different practices is needed on three themes: These are:

  • Improving efficiency so farms can produce the same amount of food with fewer emissions
  • Improving land management and carbon storage with better hedgerows, more woodland and more carbon-rich soil
  • The increased use of renewable energy.

Most farms should be able to find a way to make one or more of these improvements.

We must deal with the problem on our doorstep

Climate change is a global problem that must be dealt with on a local level if we are to succeed. The NFU is very clear that every farm and agriculture business has a role to play.

Pointedly, in vocal support of British farming, the NFU makes it clear that Net Zero should not be achieved at the expense of UK businesses, or by simply shifting the problem elsewhere. Minette Batters says: “At the same time as reducing our impact on the climate, we should not reduce our capacity to feed UK consumers with high quality, affordable British food. The UK must not achieve its climate change ambitions by exporting UK production, or our greenhouse gas emissions, to other countries.”

Partnerships are important

Although we all have our role to play, we are stronger together – and so the NFU’s vision is that agriculture works hand in hand with government departments, agencies and others to realise its ambitions.

This involves looking at the whole picture – for example the NFU calls for a range of linked policy measures from Defra, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and academics. This, in turn, empowers individual agri businesses to act.

Achieving Net Zero will be harder for some than others

The NFU acknowledges that its 2040 target is a national goal and achieving Net Zero by 2040 may not be possible for every food producing business.

Even so, every agriculture business will have some potential to play its part – both as a producer of carbon, and a “sink” with the ability to offset emissions during the farming process and protect carbon reserves already present in soils and vegetation.

Put simply – if every business helps, even in a small way, it all contributes to the wider effort.

We must be able to measure

How can we know we are achieving results? Making change is important – but being able to measure it makes that change meaningful. The NFU points out that systems for farmers and growers to track and be rewarded for reducing or offsetting emissions are “yet to be developed”.

Farmers need to be able to recognise the commercial as well as environmental benefits of their efforts. The NFU calls for a single measure to make this tangible – one option is the Global Farm Metric proposed by the Sustainable Food Trust. This takes 11 categories of assessment from

biodiversity, energy and resource use to soil and nutrient management to health of workers, to produce a score that measures progress.

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