Farmers – stewards of the countryside and pioneers of progression


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From the Australian bush fires to the flooding in Yorkshire, climate change is already having devastating impacts across the world.

England has experienced its average hottest day last year and the temperature is increasing by nearly a degree each year. Warm spells are getting longer and more frequent. Total rainfall from extremely wet days is up by 17% from 50 years ago and projections for 2070 forecast 47% less rainfall in summers. These extreme weather events have a significant impact and costs particularly for the agricultural sector. The floods in 2015/2016 affected 650 farms with an average cost per farm of around £12,000. The devastating drought of 1976 had an estimated impact of total crop failure amounting to £3.5 billion. An uncertain future of unprecedented weather pattern changes, coupled with a similar political atmosphere, opens a window of opportunity for essential evasive action. 

Whilst it is not all bad news, as research conducted by the Met Office and University of Exeter on the impact of climate change on grassland demonstrates that there will be increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which will cause a fertilisation effect, the European Environment Agency have said that these opportunities could be completely outweighed by the costs incurred because of extreme weather events. Much will depend on how agricultural industries can adapt to cope with the challenging weather and to make their businesses more resilient.

With a world focusing on climate change, pressure is also mounting in order to reach the target of net zero emissions by 2050, and whist everyone will have to play a role in becoming carbon neutral, agriculture has the ambitious target of reaching carbon neutrality a decade earlier! Our seminar held late last year brought together expert advice from the County Land and Business Association (“CLA”) and the University of Exeter for our landowning clients and our overall message is that agriculture can be the industry leaders. 

There are three main sources of emissions from the agriculture industry:

  • methane from ruminant livestock;
  • nitrous oxide mainly associated with the use of artificial fertilisers; and
  • carbon dioxide from farm transport and energy. 

The CLA advise that to effectively work towards carbon neutrality it is important to calculate the emissions from each farm and, importantly, the carbon being extracted from the environment. This is referred to as the carbon account of the farm. The identification and measurement of emissions enables the allocation of appropriate solutions to try to mitigate environmental impacts and gives factual
representation of the farms efforts to achieve the wider goal.

Two recommended online tools to assist with calculating a carbon account are: Cool Farm Tool and Farm Carbon & Cutting Toolkit. Cool Farm Tool is being used widely by companies, such as: M&S, Tesco and John Lewis. It is being used as a tool to audit their farm suppliers to promote the implementation of measures to achieve net zero carbon emissions. The Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit has been used effectively by farmers and it is user-friendly and free. The Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit allows for a variety of different details to be entered, including but not limited to: livestock, fertiliser being used, fuel and building materials. A number of organisations also offer to test soils to see how much carbon is being sequestered. These carbon accounting tools sometimes involve sitting down and going through quite a lot of information but the CLA have said that the result obtained can make a big difference to your emissions and to your bottom line. Ultimately, by evidencing a positive carbon account we can start changing the narrative around farming and climate change too.

There are noticeable benefits from keeping a carbon account. For example, by improving feed efficiency and the diet for cattle, less methane is emitted. Therefore, if cattle are fed with higher sugar diets and different forage mixes, the individual monitoring the carbon account can expect to notice a sufficient reduction in emissions from the ruminant livestock. Another method to reduce emissions in the agricultural industry is through animal health and welfare. Other adaptions noticeably being made focus on civil health by improving organic matter in soils, using the soils ability to store water, and improving farm infrastructure to cope with extreme weather events. Certainly opportunities will arise, such as: new crops, a shift in a range of crops, longer growing seasons and possibly diversifying by looking at other streams of revenue such as agroforestry. 

In the UK at the moment we have 10 billion tonnes of carbon stored and about 4 billion tonnes of carbon is stored in forests. There are multiple benefits of diversifying by the means of agroforestry as woodland is a natural flood risk management strategy, it increases biodiversity and there are significant public health benefits. There are also opportunities for grants and agricultural policy is gearing towards rewarding this type of diversification.

Although the carbon accounting process starts within the farm gate, it is imperative to consider the wider context and your total supply chain. Where your food is going and where your feed is coming from effects the total emissions. 

Whilst the agricultural industry has been negatively identified in the press, it is actually in a unique position because it is a sector that can actively impact on the climate crisis. The concept of carbon accounting should come as a relief as it will assist in factually demonstrating the impact behind the gates whilst measuring within the wider context the overall contribution towards positive climate change and demonstrating how the sector is working for a better environment. 

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