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The Government Must Prioritise Climate Friendly Farming

Climate Friendly Farming by 2050

Tackling climate change must be a top priority for future food and farming policy. The Government is faced with the challenge of producing an agricultural policy for the UK for the first time in decades - at the same time as meeting targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. We're calling for a commitment to zero-carbon farming by 2050 and proposing some solutions to help acheive that goal. 

Until recently, farming has been the elephant in the room when it comes to climate change. Efforts to cut emissions from agriculture have been half-hearted. The Government’s own advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, have called for stronger policies on agriculture over the next 5 year period, as current progress is not on track, and after 2022.

Achieving ‘net zero emissions’ from farming by around 2050 would be in line with the historic Paris Climate Agreement, signed by the UK and nearly 200 other countries.  This requires rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors – including food and agriculture – alongside bolder efforts to maximise the potential of carbon sinks such as woodlands, peatlands and soils.

The role of food and farming in our climate crisis

Farming is responsible for 10% of the EU’s overall emissions. However, this figure ignores emissions from animal feed production outside of the EU, the manufacture of nitrogen fertiliser or other agro-chemicals, and the transport of agricultural products. It also excludes the emissions related to land use change (for example, ploughing up forest or grassland for crops) or losses of soil carbon.

In fact, a new report from IFOAM EU estimates that altogether, one-third of global GHG emissions could be linked to the farming and food industries – production, processing, distribution and consumption. 

This report argues that action from the agriculture sector is essential – including from the point of view of farmers who are first impacted by climate change.  It warns that: “without a clear political signal to reduce emissions by 2030, action, learning and investments in sustainable farming practices will simply be delayed.”

Organic farming is part of the solution…

The positive role of organic farming in tackling climate change and securing a sustainable food system is also highlighted, as part of the report’s big-picture view.

Evidence shows that organic farms generally emit fewer greenhouse gases, use less energy and store greater amounts of carbon in soils per hectare than non-organic farms. Indeed, the report’s authors estimate that conversion to 50% of EU land under organic farming by 2030 would equate to a 23% cut in agricultural GHG emissions through increased soil carbon sequestration and reduced application of manufactured nitrogen fertilisers.

In addition, organic agriculture also delivers a range of other essential benefits – providing healthy, fertile soils, better resilience against extreme weather and resistance to pests, better animal welfare, more wildlife on farms, and greater sovereignty and security for farmers.

… But it’s not the only part

As food consumers, we also have a part to play and we will need to change our diets and reduce waste if we are to secure a sustainable, climate-friendly food system. That includes less but better quality meat and dairy products – particularly moving away from intensively farmed animals fed on cereals – and instead switching to grass-fed beef and lamb, and to more plant-based diets, with more fruit, vegetables and wholegrains. Not only would this be good for the planet, it would be good for our health too.

What else do we need for climate-friendly farming?

For farming systems, it will mean increasing the capacity of agricultural soils to store carbon and planting many more trees – as agroforestry schemes on farms and as woodlands and forests.  We will need to achieve a reduction in the use of nitrogen fertiliser – illustrated recently by researchers studying the environmental footprint of a loaf of bread, which found that manufactured nitrogen fertiliser alone accounted for a staggering 43% of a loaf’s total emissions.

Achieving climate-friendly farming will also depend on the innovation of farmers to develop and deploy new methods and technologies which make the most of natural processes without the need for costly and environmentally damaging inputs.

Political leadership needed

Government support for this transition is a vital part of the puzzle, which is why are calling for commitments from the new government on climate change and farmer-led innovation.

At EU level too, organic organisations are urging the Commission to ensure that agriculture is not let off the hook when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, explaining that:  “with existing policies, agriculture emissions are expected to only reduce by 2.3% by 2030, and are expected to represent one third of all EU emissions by 2050.”

Ultimately, the UK won’t meet its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement without insisting that agriculture plays its part. A sustainable food future depends on redressing our use of natural resources, cutting waste, and eating less but better quality meat and dairy.

Organic farming provides a model for sustainable food production, and the methods and principles underlying organic systems must be central in this urgent process of transition. Commitments to ‘food security’ do not grant a blank cheque for ever-more intensive, industrialised agriculture –  we need more than just food to survive: we need a stable climate, clean air and water, healthy soils and to restore biodiversity. Organic farming must be part of the solution. 

You can read the report ‘Organic Farming, Climate Change Mitigation and Beyond. Reducing the Environmental Impacts of EU Agriculture’  from IFOAM EU and Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FibL).