Letting go of our productive farmland isn’t the solution to capturing carbon

By Tom Gill

Less than a month into the new decade, and those who dared to hope that focus on UK sustainability objectives would turn to solutions rather than a persistent environmental ear-bashing will be feeling disappointed.

Some eight months after releasing its Net Zero report on the feasibility of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Committee on Climate Change — the government’s official climate change advisor — has released it’s next phase: the specific policies needed to achieve those reductions.

Given the CCC’s earlier claims about the need to cut livestock protein from our diets, many of the recommendations, such as slashing dairy, beef and lamb consumption by 20%, were expected.

Perhaps surprisingly, there were some positive snippets for farmers to get behind. For starters, the report says nearly two thirds of emissions can be cut from the land sector by 2050 without hampering food production — provided farmers are given ‘adequate financial support’.

And it says leaving the EU should give the government ample opportunity to meet those targets, thanks to the “transformative” domestic policies to replace the CAP.

Fundamental change

Despite these positives, however, the frustration remains around the CCC’s insistence that current farming systems are inherently negative for delivering environmental goods and services — and that UK agriculture has to fundamentally change if it’s to be sustainable. There is clearly a transition required, but this needs to focus on solutions rather than the problems.

Launching the report, CCC chief executive Chris Stark said the report outlined “clear advice” to the government that a fifth of agricultural land needs to be taken needs to be taken out of “traditional” agricultural production.

In its place, land management needs to focus on long-term, natural carbon storage, which means growing trees, planting more bioenergy crops, and restoring soils.

“There is inevitably some uncertainty about the precise ways in which that needs to be achieved,” he added. “That means a really strong message to government: They have to get started on this soon.”

Frustrating messages

For those of us working in the industry, and particularly for so many farmers and growers who are seeking to lead by regenerating their soils and driving other environmental improvements, it’s a frustrating message to hear.

As we’ve said before, it’s wrong to say that ‘traditional’ agriculture — particularly mixed farming systems — can’t be regenerative, and many farm already have an important role in capturing carbon, restoring soils, increasing biodiversity and supporting our habitats.

Livestock production in particular, which the CCC seems so quick to demonise, is one of the only truly closed systems, returning nutrients and organic material back to the soil where carbon can be captured and preserved.

It’s also wrong to say that farmland needs to be taken out of food production in order to be restorative.

Aside from the benefits of grazing livestock, farmers across the UK are planting substantial acreages of hedgerows, habitat-boosting field strips, and restoring woodland.

Carbon and water storage
Increasing biodiversity
Restoring woodlands

Farming’s future policies

That’s not to say that there isn’t more that agriculture, food supply chains and horticulture can do, or alternative food-producing systems producers might want to look into.

Silvopastoral systems, where livestock are grazed or crops are grown alongside productive fruit or nut trees, can help meet the goals of planting more trees whilst maintaining the productivity of land.

Meanwhile more and more food supply chains are examining the benefits of adopting more mixed farming systems to help their businesses more sustainable both economically and environmentally.

But while it’s important to look at new, alternative and innovative solutions to tackling agriculture’s carbon footprint, it’s vital that sweeping, generalised assumptions based on global rather than UK emissions data aren’t allowed to guide future policy.

With Brexit on our doorstep, the UK government is in a unique position to create policy that can support farmers to make meaningful change — change that will not only help the government reach its 2050 net zero targets, but also drive agricultural sustainability and ensure food production isn’t affected.

To achieve that though, it’s vital that future policy recognises the benefits UK food production systems can offer, and in particular acknowledges that livestock production can play an important role in the net zero challenge.