British agriculture is in a strong position to cut its emissions and lead the way in sustainable farming, delegates at this week’s NFU Livestock and Climate Change summit heard.
The panel event held at the NFU offices in London, was chaired by President Minette Batters who said the UK was lucky to have a climate which meant we were able to grow grass to feed livestock and produce sustainable food.
“Not every country in the world can say it has the basics to grow grass,” she said, pointing out that the UK is 2.5 times more efficient in livestock production than the rest of the world.
But she said the industry wanted to go further and be world leaders in climate friendly farming.
The NFU has an ambitious target of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions across the whole of agriculture in England and Wales by 2040.
The summit heard that of the three greenhouse gases, methane, produced by cows, makes up the most substantial portion of agriculture’s footprint.
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Dr Michelle Cain, from Oxford University, told the conference that methane, while potent, was also the most short-lived pollutant staying in the atmosphere for around a decade in contrast to CO2 and nitrous oxide which were there for hundreds of years.
She said that in order to limit warming to 1.5C, CO2 emissions needed to be reduced to net zero and move into net negative, while methane should be declining but doesn’t have to reach net zero to stabilise temperatures.
“The more we can reduce methane emissions the better for limiting warming,” she said.
Dr Graham McAuliffe, research scientist at Rothamsted Institute said reducing emissions was crucial for the agricultural industry and methane was probably the easiest to target.
“Ruminants are perceived as having a very high carbon footprint,” he said. “But agricultural systems are complicated with so many differences, capturing one metric is very difficult.”
Dr McAuliffe also said a 2018 report by his colleague had found a direct correlation between the quality of the soil and the performance of the animals.
“Fields with a higher carbon content gave better live weight gain with the knock-on effect of improving the carbon footprint.”
This use of carbon rich soil and herd efficiency had been put into practice by beef and arable farmer Joe Stanley. He told the summit he used a high health scheme in the family herd of traditional English Longhorns to produce efficient animals which in turn lowered methane emissions.
“We don’t have any animals which are not producing. If a cow is not in calf they are only producing greenhouse gasses and are not efficient.”
He said they also look at different bloodlines and the kind of animals they produce, such as faster growing so they reach weight more quickly.
Mr Stanley said all farmers were aware of the need to reduce greenhouse emissions and he said they were planting white clover in fields rather than using artificial fertiliser to lower nitrous oxide.
He said livestock were an important part of keeping soils healthy and that grazing the fields locked in carbon as it promoted new growth.
“It is a symbiotic relationship, the grass feeds the cows and the manure goes back on to the fields to lock carbon into the grass.”
He said his future plans included a full carbon audit for the farm, although the technology for this still had some way to go.
He was also looking at renewables and mentioned a trial currently under way at Harper Adams University looking at seaweed based feed additives which could help reduce methane emissions.
“Farmers will be the first to tell you we need to do our bit for climate change,” he said.
“And while our industry does contribute to greenhouse gases, it can also be a sink to offset them.”
Ms Batters said farmers could provide the answer for other industries when it came to off-setting their carbon footprint.
She said there was “clearly a growing demand” from industries to invest in the agricultural sector to offset the emissions resulting from their practices.
Ms Batters said she had heard of an airline which might be interested in this kind of project.
“There will be a need if they are going to be offsetting to invest in farming, potentially, in order to offset those costs.”
But Mr Stanley warned it has to be an ongoing and sustainable investment from that company, not an upfront payment and then nothing, leaving them with no future livelihood.