Farming and Climate Change: Towards Net Zero Carbon Emissions

I was fortunate enough to join this conference at the beginning of July, inspired by Minette Batters’ challenge to all farmers of zero carbon emissions by 2040.  The conference, a partnership with the National Farmers Union and The Sustainable Food Trust, considered how agriculture responds to the climate emergency that faces us.  Minette Batters’ NFU president argued that whist agriculture’s annual contribution of 46.5 MT CO2e, a strategy for the industry must be around three principles: a) improving productive efficiency; b) boosting natural carbon capture and storage; 3) increasing Bioenergy and carbon capture.  Alongside this, the fact remained that we must not export our efficient production to poorly regulated and inefficient countries.

Gail Bradbrook of Extinction Rebellion made the significance of our situation utterly clear – “We’re f**ked,” she stated.  A 1 degree C rise in temperature equals a 10% reduction in crop yields, at 2.5 degree increase we cannot feed the current population.  With the predictions that the population will grow by 50% by the end of the century and food production will fall by half, with nutritional value deteriorating by a third.  Her message to the conference was that agriculture has a key role to play in abating this and the farm lobby should be with Extinction Rebellion.

Myles Allen from the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford challenged the conventional way of assessing the global warming effect of Methane and that converting all emissions from Methane, Carbon Dioxide and Nitrous Oxide to cumulative Carbon Dioxide equivalents was mistaken whilst Carbon Dioxide and Nitrous Oxide stays in the atmosphere for decades.  The effects of methane is much less of an issue as it breaks down over a few years in the atmosphere.  This new way of considering methane helps to make the case for the value of ruminants in the climate emergency.

Michael Lee from North Wyke made the case for forage-based beef and introduced the concept of Nutrient Index which looks at the whole range of nutrients derived from livestock.  He made the point that because grass fed beef contained 4 times as much Omega 3 than concentrate fed beef, as well as higher levels of a wide range of other nutrients when compared to white meats, the actual Global Warming Potential (GWP) of beef was comparable to chicken and pork on a nutrient basis.

Professor of Economic Policy at Oxford, Dieter Helm argued that, we need to take all costs of production into account and think globally and include the cost of imported goods and not to do to agriculture what has been done to other energy intensive industries and export the emissions to somewhere else.  Food prices will have to rise he argued, “It is us, the consumers, who buy these pollution-inducing agricultural products and are therefore really the polluters, who should pay for the damage our consumption habits cause.  It is ultimately our fault, and not that of the farmers, who respond rationally to the incentives they face.  Cheap food cannot be an objective without regard to the consequences.” Higher food prices, of course, would have a negative impact on food security for people and families on low incomes.  He also pointed out that some of agriculture’s beneficial and polluting tax concession could not continue, the days of fertilisers, pesticides and red diesel where no tax is paid were numbered.

Tony Juniper, Chairman of Natural England discussed some of the issues and the principle of ‘public money for public goods.  Nature is a public good, and nature is also natural capital; economic values and price tags can be attached to nature’s assets from clean air and water to carbon sequestration and biodiversity.  A move to payments for public goods will be certainly a game changer, but with the devil in the details, how this will play out in practice is still up in the air.  The pressing issue is how do we define / refine and measure biodiversity or movements in carbon in a way that is not overly costly.

Question and answer sessions are often illuminating and the one at Fir Farm chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby, was no less informative and the first question  “Are high farming yields the enemy of nature?” to which Batters made the point that it shouldn’t be about downsizing yield; it should be about climate-smart farming.   With Michael Lee noting that “chasing any single metric is damaging to sustainability”, implying that a question like this can only really be answered from a holistic perspective where, he argues, farmers understand the capacity of their land and ensure they don’t overburden their soils with inorganic fertilisers etc.  Another question posed to the panel was “How can we convince consumers to pay more for their food?” which as Jonathan Dimbleby noted, implies that consumers should pay more.  The complicated issues embedded in questions such as these make answers anything but easy.

Contact William at w.waterfield@fcgagric.com or your local FCG office, to discuss how your business can reduce carbon emissions in the future.

Posted in Andover, Arable & Crops, Beef, Business Management, Dairy & Forage, Environment.