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We need to fast forward to a net zero farming future

We need a net zero farming future

Originally posted on Wildlife and Countryside Link

Climate disruption poses a major threat to farming and food production.

Whether that’s unpredictable cold spring weather killing lambs, flooding fields, drought devastating crops, or worsening pest and disease problems, farmers are already bearing the brunt of an increasingly volatile climate, even here in the UK.

Yet when it comes to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, food and farming are still too often the elephant in the room. In the UK, agriculture accounts for 10% of emissions. The food system globally accounts for around 30% and, without change, the food and farming industry will single-handedly use up the Paris Climate Agreement carbon emissions budget within the next 20-30 years.

Farmer and Cows at Helen Browning Organic

Climate mitigation in the UK has focussed largely on shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy. That’s vital, and there is much further to go, but food and farming must also be front and centre in the climate debate - and climate must be at the heart of UK farming policy.

The Government’s consultation, Health and Harmony, recognises the need to tackle climate change, but dodges the fact there has been no reduction in agricultural emissions for the past 6 years.

The Committee on Climate Change has repeatedly flagged the importance of ‘moving beyond a voluntary approach for on-farm emissions reductions’ and of new policies if climate targets are to be met, yet Ministers have so far ignored this recommendation. The forthcoming Agriculture Bill is one opportunity to change that and to enshrine in law the requirement for the agriculture sector to make a full and fair contribution to carbon budgets in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.

With Climate Minister Clare Perry’s recent announcement on strengthening the UK’s climate targets, a shift in gear is long overdue to achieve farms which have zero net greenhouse emissions.

We urgently need to identify what a net zero farming and food system looks like and how to get there over just a few decades. The good news is that we already know many of the essential ingredients: soil carbon storage, more trees, minimising nitrogen fertiliser use, and going organic - with research finding that making 50% of EU farming organic by 2030 could cut greenhouse gas emissions by almost a quarter.

agroforestry and sheep

Many farmers in the UK are already taking climate change action. The Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit supports farmers and growers to cut farm greenhouse gas emissions, increase farm energy resilience and improve their business at the same time. An EU-wide group of farmers and researchers are involved in a project assessing the climate adaptation and mitigation potential of four key farming practices to be reported on later this month. In Scotland, NGOs, farmers and rural groups are joining forces with proposals which include: creating a nitrogen balance sheet; increasing soil organic matter and peatland restoration; better support for organic farming; and stronger promotion of agroforestry.

Action to cut agricultural emissions is vital, but policy making needs to look beyond the farm gate. For public health as well as climate reasons, this must be accompanied by a wider transformation of our food system including dietary change towards less but better quality meat, action on food waste, supply chains which are shorter and more resilient, and reconnecting both children and adults with where food comes from and how it is produced.

‘I’m proud that we have got our own house in order’ declared the UK’s Climate Minister speaking recently about the UK’s climate action. Unfortunately, this is far from reality when it comes to the food and farming sector. The Health and Harmony consultation and the forthcoming Agriculture Bill provide two vital opportunities to change that for the better. As agricultural emissions continue to contribute to the melting of polar ice caps, this must be an unfrozen moment for climate action - one that sets the UK on the path to a net zero farming system, for the sake of farmers, consumers, and the environment.