Can UK agriculture really achieve net zero? – with the right policy . . . yes

Taking place online the conference brought together over 200 farmers, andowners, agriculturalists, and industry representatives from across the south of England. The topic of conversation centred around whether the UK really can achieve net zero in the agriculture  ndustry by 2040.

Chaired by BBC presenter Charlotte Smith, panel guests included Minette Batters – President of the NFU, Tim May – Managing Director of Kingsclere Estates, Doug Wanstall – Farmer and Nuffield Scholar, and Hugh Martineau – Head of Sustainability at Map of Ag. After each panel representative had delivered their presentations, the over-riding message was clear – the industry can achieve net zero by 2040, but it will require farmers to adopt new practices, and government support that incentivises the right behaviours.

Kicking off the conference, Minette Batters explained the NFU’s decision to set the 2040 deadline expressing how she wanted to make the Government and scientific and academic communities sit up and pay attention to the industry. She went on to clarify how the agricultural act—that came into force that day (11.11.20)—was a pivotal point for the industry and, while it will play a critical role in the UK achieving net zero, farming practice needs incentivising and changing quite significantly across the country to achieve the target.

On why and how the UK could achieve net zero, Minette said: “For too long we have been a reactive industry. We have a chance to get ahead and show what we stand for and what we can deliver. Our thinking is around three key pillars: productivity and climate-smart farming; changing our landscapes with more trees and hedges to capture more carbon; and renewable energy and the bio-economy.”

She added: “As much as trade will shape the future, the environmental land management scheme will fundamentally shape it as well.”

Tim May used the conference to highlight how the farming industry needs to embrace a whole system of change rather than just concentrating on the carbon element. He explained how he works with a holistic management system on his own regenerative farm to assess each cycle – the water cycle, the mineral cycle, energy flow, and community dynamics – and how the industry really should be involving the younger generation as they have so many great ideas on the subject. He concluded his presentation by stressing that, while net zero was indeed achievable by 2040, and that many farmers in the UK could already be potentially achieving it, there must be a strong, clear list of measurables in place as right now many emissions figures can be manipulated.

Doug Wanstall, whose farm is already sequestering about 4,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, went on to talk about how the industry needs to improve its messaging to consumers to ensure they understand what regenerative agriculture is, and its role in helping to reverse man made climate change. He said: “If we could move most of the UK towards regenerative practices using both the carrot of commercial incentives, and a stick where farms are unwilling to adapt, not only will we have a more resilient food system, but we’ll have a fantastic marketing message.”

He added: “We should lobby policy makers for recognition of what we can achieve. CO2 sequestration into soil organic matter on timber, in our view, is the most obvious, natural, and low-cost solution to anthropological climate change. We need to think differently throughout the supply chain and enact positive change. We need to make a paradigm shift from soil exportation to soil regeneration.”

Hugh Martineau concluded the presentations by highlighting how agriculture is the cause of 10% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions yet, across all industries, land is only being used to remove 2%. He agreed with Tim on how the industry should not be looking at greenhouse gases in isolation of other environmental challenges stating: “It would be all too easy to say we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by cutting production or cutting livestock numbers, but if that simply means we end up exporting our emissions to other countries with less efficient production systems, we will be in a worse position than when we started.”

Hugh believes feed, fertility, fertiliser and fuel are the key areas the industry should be concentrating on.

Summarising the event, Duncan Rawson, a Nuffield Scholar sponsored by the South of England Agricultural Society and organiser of this year’s Farming Conference, said: “This was a fascinating evening discussing a hugely important subject.  Agriculture, whether we like it or not, is a significant contributor to climate change and biodiversity loss, but it also holds in its hands the opportunity to play a substantial role in climate change mitigation, if the industry from retail to the farm, is prepared to embrace the changes required to do so.”

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About The Author

John Swire - Deputy editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is a season ticket holder at Stoke City and also of late has become a fitness freak, listing cycling, swimming and walking as his exercises of choice.