Green New Deal News

Farmers hold the key on how to make the country greener

THE latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the contribution of the land use to climate change attracted a great deal of media attention, particularly in relation to the global sustainability of meat-based diets.

Farming is hugely important in this debate as over 70% of land in the UK is farmed in some way or other. 

The report will have increased the public’s awareness of the interdependence between agriculture and the environment, but not in a manner which will make farmers sleep more easily at night. 

The challenges set out in the IPCC report come on top of uncertainties in the level and nature of future farm subsidies, and uncertainties in the future for food trade as a result of us leaving the EU.

Together they mean that the UK farm sector is facing an existential crisis, which all but The Archers seem to be aware of.  

Behind the headlines, the IPCC report includes a much more positive message about the potential agriculture has for helping to mitigate climate change.

READ MORE:  Fife farmer bids to put buffalo mozzarella on the menu

Unlike other sectors, agriculture can, through appropriate changes in land use and new land management practices, not only reduce its greenhouse gas emissions but sequester more carbon, offsetting emissions in other sectors.

The same changes in land use and land management will also help stem the decline in biodiversity and our natural resources, or what the economist Dieter Helm and others refer to as our “natural capital”. 

In his latest book “Green and Prosperous Land”, Helm argues that protecting and enhancing our environment is one of the best investments that a society can make and that agriculture, with the support of appropriate policies, has a key role in moving us towards a sustainable future. 

The signs are that, post-Brexit, UK agricultural policy will place more, rather than less, emphasis on the environmental objectives of farming. 

It follows that farmers should welcome the increased attention being given to the environment. 

In reality, agri-environmental policies explicitly focused on ensuring farming delivers environmental public goods are not new.  

First introduced in the 1990s, the principle of “greening” farm support was further embedded in the 2014 round of the Common Agricultural Policy reforms by tying the eligibility of basic subsidies to a minimum level of environmental compliance. 

However, despite the clear and long-standing policy support for protecting the farmed environment, and notwithstanding recent commitments by farm lobby groups to achieving net-zero production, many farmers see their primary, and in some cases sole, role being that of producing food. 

Why is this? In part it could be attributed to the nature of some past agri-environmental schemes. 

Many have been bureaucratically demanding while others have, inadvertently, included conditions which placed future farm support payments at risk. 

While some measures have clear environmental gains and are relatively easy for farmers to adopt, eg restoring peat bogs on land, not in productive use, often the schemes are necessarily more complex. 

READ MORE: Five Scottish farm-themed wedding venues 

Natural habitats need to be connected to function effectively, often across farm boundaries, therefore requiring new levels of  co-operation between neighbouring farmers; the right sort of trees need to be planted in the right types of land for net positive carbon sequestration to occur, and the time period within which the trees will generate income may not align with a farmer’s needs.  

However, new farming technologies and methods are emerging that will hopefully breakdown this false dichotomy between food production and environmental protection. 

These include for example minimum or no-tillage farming; this is cheaper and improves soil fertility at the same time as avoiding greenhouse gas emissions from ploughing and retaining carbon in the soil.

Another example is agroforestry which provides productivity and welfare benefits to livestock as well as the carbon sequestration benefits from trees. 

The uptake of these and other agri-ecological approaches is being demonstrated by innovators in the sector and will be supported by UK policies, which recognise the importance of farm-based natural capital. 

Moreover, disruptive technologies are fast emerging which will provide yet more opportunities for the sector to show its environmental credentials.

For example, indoor vertical farming offers huge environmental benefits in terms of reducing food waste, eliminating the need for agro-chemicals in crop production, reducing water requirements, and, by producing food where it is needed, reducing food miles and sparing land.  

A recent Scottish Government study found that 20 per cent of the public rated the environment as one of the top three government portfolios that should be prioritised in terms of spending. 

Agriculture came much further down the list, with just 5% of the public rating it. In particular, over half of the participants in the forum (55%) wanted to see a greater share of agricultural support funding going to support the natural environment. The public’s views were changed. The question is therefore whether farmers will embrace the opportunity? 

Deborah Roberts is director of science at The James Hutton Institute.