Can UK agriculture really meet ambitious net zero emissions?

A beautiful woods

By Heather Webb

The NFU’s commitment to helping UK agriculture hit net zero emissions ten years faster than the  government’s 2050 goal was yet another sign that farmers have to get a handle on understanding and managing their environmental footprint.

Given how regularly farming comes under fire for the amount of greenhouse gases it produces, you might think the industry has been given a target it has no chance of reaching.

But with careful planning and management, there are a variety of ways farm businesses can make strides in lowering emissions and being part of the net zero economy.

Understanding the truth behind the data

The first step has to be in learning to measure, monitor and interpret what is happening on each farm – but how do we do that?

At the Sustainable Food Trust’s 2019 conference, there was lots of discussion about the need for accurate metrics if we’re really going to understand and get to grips with agriculture’s contribution to UK greenhouse gas emissions.

In his talk, Professor Michael Lee from Bristol University said the complexity of sustainable agriculture means there needs to be multiple measurements, as using a single one will present a skewed view.

Traditional methods of measuring the carbon dioxide equivalent (the standard unit for measuring carbon footprints) of a kilogram of beef don’t take into account the nutritional value of meat, while measuring carbon footprints tell us noting about which farming systems are the most effective at predicting nutritious food.

The solution for Prof Lee has been to create a new way to measure GHGs in beef production which incorporates Recommended Dietary Intakes (RDI) into the emissions metric.

By using RDIs, the metric recognises beef’s high nutritional value and concentration of much-needed vitamins and minerals compared to other foods which — on the surface — have a lower carbon footprint.

Measure, monitor, and react

Another important theme from the conference was the need to measure and monitor.

In the first instance, farmers and land managers should measure emission profiles and set baselines in order to establish targets and plan for improvements. If this seems like a daunting task, then it’s worth seeking professional advice to set you on the right track — Promar has its own fully-accredited carbon accounting tool that can help.

Once a baseline’s been set, then it’s vital to continue to take measurements to understand what impact any changes are having, and to assess performance.

When measurements are being taken, it’s important remember to take into account all areas of the farm. As Dieter Helm of the National Capital Committee pointed out in his talk, soils and woodlands are often data gaps on farms’ balance sheets, and those natural assets needed to be valued in financial terms.

Putting all of this into practice, the conference’s host farm, Fir Farm, showed how they are measuring and monitoring emissions across their 700 acre organic mixed livestock enterprise in order to become net carbon neutral.

Through carbon footprinting, estate manager Donald Bennett and his team measures the farm’s total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions to be 544 tonnes a year, with emissions coming from electricity use, manure management, methane from enteric fermentation of livestock, and fuel use.

However thanks to woodland creation, implementing a grazing regime which encourages soil biology and soil organic carbon, and by investing in renewable energy, 472 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent are sequestered on the farm annually.

And with measures to convert to organic production, replace oil burners and switch from red diesel to altnernative fuels set to reduce those emissions even further, the farm is living proof that reaching the NFU’s targets is possible.

– If you want to find out more about Promar’s fully-accredited carbon accounting tool and want help assessing your business’ emissions profile, contact Heather Webb