Climate Action, food and farming: a seismic shift for the NFU?

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my critical views on the National Farmers Union, the NFU – over the years. So be prepared for a shock, brace yourselves and read on.

Or stop now if your cognitive dissonance klaxon is blaring.

The NFU has released its long-awaited vision for how farming (in England of course) can reach net zero – that is no net contribution to the unfolding climate crisis, by 204. I say vision rather than plan, because it lays out its stall without necessarily revealing the cost of each individual item. Some items are a bit sketchy, and some are fantasy, but we’ll come on to that. Considering the prevalence of climate denial within the farming community, this is a very bold move on the part of the NFU and in particular its newish President Minette Batters.

The NFU accepts that agriculture makes a large contribution (10%) to the UK’s domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. I say domestic, because of the way emissions are calculated. Country emissions ignore the GHG footprint of imported goods and services, as well as major contributions from air travel and international shipping. This means our domestic emissions may underestimate our total contribution to the global climate crisis by a large amount. Still, that’s another story. Agriculture’s emissions are mostly Methane – from ruminants like sheep and cows; and Nitrous Oxide, most of which is released from the soil when artificial nitrogen fertilisers are used.

The NFU’s solutions to addressing these pollutants fall into three categories –

  • techno fixes to improve productivity;
  • bioenergy with carbon capture & storage (BECCS); and
  • farmland carbon storage.

Of the total of 45 megatonnes of Carbon Dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e) greenhouse gases emitted per year from farmland in England, a whopping 22 Mt ie half, is going to be dealt with via BECCS. By comparison NFU sees new tree-planting on farmland as delivering 0.7MtCO2e.

Starting with the technofixes, the idea is to produce more food with less environmental impact – something which is known as sustainable intensification. This covers a wide range of things, from precision farming using satellite-controlled tractors, developing GMOs; and creating food additives to make cows fart less. Sustainable Intensification has been around for quite a while now and has been enthusiastically adopted as an idea. The odd thing though is that farm productivity overall has not increased during that 10 years.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps, like communism, it just hasn’t been done properly yet. And is there really any appetite among the British public for GM crops now, any more than there hasn’t been for the last 20 years? So I think it’s fair to say the NFU is being optimistic in thinking it can get one quarter of its target delivered through this route, but of course we won’t know until it’s been tried.

One thing that I noticed wasn’t mentioned is shifting away from using fossil fuels to power farm machinery. As I wrote about earlier in the year, Red Diesel use on English farms generates 1.1Mt of CO2 per year – fuel that is heavily subsidised by the tax payer. Cheap fuel is no incentive to drive fuel efficiency or innovative tech. Redirecting this £550M a year into supporting low carbon farming, or research into electric vehicles and farm robots, might be a good idea.

The NFU has nailed its colours firmly to the mast of Bioenergy and Carbon Capture and Storage – BECCS. What this essentially means is that farmers grow crops which are used to create energy rather than food. The report helpfully points us towards what this means in practice on its front cover – Anaerobic Digesters, or AD plants. There are now nearly 350 AD plants across the UK – mainly driven by crops such as Maize and increasingly hybrid Rye. These are very heavily subsidised and they also have a host of environmental and social problems associated with them.

I have written a number of times about the problems with AD and personally I do not believe they are part of the solution to climate chaos. Then there is Carbon Capture and Storage – where carbon dioxide is drawn out of the air and stored underground for, effectively, ever. This is an idea which has been around for a long time, but there is no functioning system for doing it. Like nuclear fusion, the tech always seems to be five or 10 years away. Interestingly the Government’s own advisor on climate action, the Climate Change Committee, also depend on future developments of BECCS as part of their strategy, though they do recognise the danger  – that giving over large areas of farmland to bioenergy production can displace other land-uses (food mainly) elsewhere, including abroad.

The NFU specifically state that they want to avoid sending our GHG footprint elsewhere in the world, so how will they do this? What area of England would need to be covered by bioenergy crops, to create a 22MtCO2e saving per year? At the moment around 50,000ha of farmland is used to grow bioenergy Maize and other feedstock like sugar beet and hybrid Rye – and the NFU has previously stated its vision of 200,000ha of England’s farmland under such crops. Germany currently has seven times as much farmland under bioenergy as the UK – perhaps this is the target. We need to know. I previously calculated that half the arable land in Dorset would be needed to provide gas (not electricity) for Dorset’s residents.

The last leg of this stool is carbon storage on farmland. There is very little detail in here other than wider hedgerows and a smattering of farmland tree planting. There have been various claims (elsewhere) that changing from arable cultivation to no-till or min-till farming has the capacity to capture lots of carbon in soils, but so far the evidence is not there – what it does suggest is that there is movement of carbon from the surface layers of the soil into deeper layers, and vice versa. Traditionally soil carbon has only been measured in the top 6 inches – providing a very partial picture of soil carbon storage.

Extensively managed grassland does store a great deal of carbon in its soil though – as much as 1ooo tonnes of CO2e per hectare, according to research recently carried out by the Duchy Business School Soil Carbon Project (Matt Chatfield pers comm).

Perhaps the most intriguing suggestion is 3MtCO2e from peatland and wetland restoration. Peatlands across the UK currently emit 23MtCO2e a year – an incredible amount. Peat converted to arable – in the intensive farmland of East Anglia, is the biggest emitter and I don’t suppose the NFU is proposing that this area be converted to wetland – although sea level rise will do that, probably before the century is out. Perhaps they are thinking about the peatland converted to intensive grassland which emits 6.3MtCO2e per year. Seeing half of the Culm grassland (yes it’s peat) that was lost to intensive pasture in the South-West of England restored to its former wildlife-rich glory would be a marvellous outcome for everyone, although presumably not the farmers who currently farm it (some of it already being used to grow bioenergy crops for the plethora of AD plants across Devon.)

You may feel I am being unduly critical – even dismissive – of the NFU’s vision. I actually think it’s amazing that the NFU has produced this vision at all and it’s a great thing to see them place an environmental issue at the heart of their work.

Perhaps the biggest omission from the report is to ask the question “what sort of food should we be producing in the UK?”. Because that underlies everything else. If we were to produce more fruit and vegetables, more pulses to provide protein for people, less meat, less dairy and fewer crops to feed livestock, that would change all the equations for methane and Nitrous Oxide. But the NFU is not yet in a position to consider those questions.

And I suppose that sums up the approach which the NFU has taken in this report – trying as hard as possible to find ways of addressing farming’s climate footprint, without changing what farming produces. This has caused the authors to perform contortions which necessitate applying  – well let’s say aspirational – approaches such as BECCS and other techno fixes, rather than reducing their climate footprint through dietary changes of their consumers. In a way this illustrates how farmers are so constrained in what they do by all the other actors in the food chain – from machinery and chemical suppliers, the big retailers, policy wonks and politicians; and, ultimately, the consumer.

Personally I would advocate a different approach;

Changing our national diet – through education, incentives and taxation. Sustain is doing great work on this and I would recommend you read what they produce.

Producing less and better meat – rare breeds of beef and lamb, which is only produced using grassland and other forage, not cereals or importing soya beans from Brazil or Argentina. Chicken and Pork grown from domestic cereals produced extensively in mixed farming systems.

A massive increase in the production of domestic fruit and vegetables; and pulses. This is probably going to have to happen anyway as the supply of cheap fruit and veg produced in Spain & elsewhere is cut off by Brexit.

Shifting agriculture to Agro-ecology. This means farming in ways which work with nature not against it. Organic farming, small-scale horticulture, producing fruit and vegetable for local markets and communities.

A hundred Knepps. Developing large area of extensively grazed wood pasture which act as carbon sinks, wildlife refuges, produce excellent quality meat and provide places where people can enjoy and benefit from nature. Think of 100 Knepps, but on public land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agro-ecology, Anaerobic Digester, biofuels, biogas, climate action, NFU and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Climate Action, food and farming: a seismic shift for the NFU?

  1. tommfinch says:

    Great post Miles. I found the NFU’s vision profoundly disappointing, though I hadn’t appreciated the silver lining which is that they’ve even contemplated producing such a vision at all.

    You mention that the 10% figure (agriculture’s contribution to UK GHG budget) ignores imported goods, but I think it also ignores emissions from land-use change. This isn’t just about the immediate carbon-costs associated with clearing e.g. rainforest, but also the ongoing opportunity costs associated with maintaining managed farmland as opposed to carbon-sequestering semi/natural habitat. So I think the 10% figure is an underestimate. Globally, accounting for land-use approximately doubles the GHG emissions associated with food production. (Or am I missing something?)

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Tom. There is a figure for LULUCF in the CCC report – 14Mt CO2e sequestered in 2016. I wonder if there is an element of opportunity cost/benefit incorporated into theNFU’s proposals, for widening hedges, farm tree-planting and wetland restoration. The implication is that a smaller area of more intensively managed land will create the same amount of food.

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