The stark challenge facing policy makers at this crucial juncture, Tony Juniper said, was to ensure the restoration of damaged soil to maximise its carbon-capturing capabilities.
With a sympathetic policy framework that leads to soil health being better nurtured, Mr Juniper said he believed that farming’s ambitious 2040 net zero greenhouse gas emissions target could be met earlier.
Speaking alongside Emma Howard Boyd, who chairs the Environment Agency, on a visit to South Acre Farm near York, Mr Juniper said: “At the moment, climate change has been seen as something which is about coal burning, about electricity; it’s about cars, aeroplanes, all that is very true but the big bit of the challenge and actually a huge bit of the solution is linked with how we manage land.
“One of the really big opportunities we have... is to be capturing carbon in the ground in recovering soils. That is about rebuilding soil and organic matter and if we do that successfully, that’s not only going to be removing C02 from the atmosphere, it is also going to be protecting long-term food security.”
Healthier soils are also better at absorbing water and helping to prevent flooding, he said.
Better soil health is listed among the priorities of the Government’s recent 25-year Environment Plan to enhance the natural world, as well as things like improved animal health and water quality, less air pollution, greater carbon capture and biodiversity recovery.
Mr Juniper said: “Unless we can unite these things into an integrated agenda, we won’t get as far as we can as fast as we can and with as many co-benefits as we can.
“For me that is the key thing now, how are we going to be knitting together all of these pieces? We’ve got ELMS (the Government’s proposed public money for public goods farm payment scheme post-Brexit), we’ve got ‘net zero’, we’ve got the Nature Recovery Network (which is intended to deliver 500,000ha of new wildlife habitats), and wonderful tools in development. If we can now start putting that together... we can have a transformation, possibly even before 2040.”
The Environment Agency has just set its own target to go net zero by 2030, and Ms Howard Boyd said: “When it comes to the net zero debate everyone is focusing, predominantly, on carbon. As chair of the Environment Agency it is absolutely key that we are also focusing on adaptation and resilience and the water aspects (flood prevention) as well.”
She said some industries will make speedy emissions gains than others, adding: “We all need to go at the fastest pace we can possibly achieve, urge each other on and recognise that if some go early, that’s because some sectors will take longer.”
Reaching net zero, boosting nature and flood prevention are, together, “absolutely fundamental to economic prosperity” and should be given “maximum effort”, Ms Howard Boyd said.
Great Environmental gains can be achieved if government agencies are “thoughtful about how we support farmers”, Natural England chief Tony Juniper said.
Both he and Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd visited dairy farmer Paul Tompkins at South Acre Farm near York to hear how he had reduced water pollution from slurry with help from the Government’s Catchment Sensitive Farming service.
Mr Tompkins, who is vice chairman of the national dairy board at the National Farmers' Union, is one of thousands of farmers to have reduced their contribution to water pollution by seeking government advice, a report published shows.
Nearly 20,000 farms – equivalent to 34 per cent of England’s total farmland – have sought guidance from the Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) service since it launched 12 years ago.
Of those farmers, eight in every 10 went on to record improved water quality on their land or associated financial benefits.
An evaluation of the advice service also shows that participating areas have seen reductions in a number of agricultural pollutants. Nitrogen levels are down by four per cent, phosphorus levels by eight per cent, and sediment by 12.3 per cent.
According to the report, a network of trained CSF advisers have helped farmers across the country to carry out more than 75,000 actions to reduce water pollution on their land, from changing the way they apply pesticides to building new infrastructure to stop pollutants from reaching waterways.
The government service is a partnership between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Environment Agency and Natural England.