Farming and the climate crisis

Roots of green manures fixing nitrogn

What can farming do for the climate crisis?

COP26 in Glasgow brought a sharp focus on human activities that create greenhouse gases. There were many welcome announcements on reducing methane from oil and gas, cutting coal, limiting deforestation, “keeping 1.5 alive”, and a whole other host of measures. While many campaigners and leaders agree that the pledges do not go far enough, progress  has been made, momentum must continue and these pledges must now be translated  into action on all scales from grassroots to governments, across the world.

Building carbon in soils is a win-win for farmers and society

But one major issue was not given adequate attention – food and farming. Representing around 21-37% of global carbon emissions and something so fundamental to our daily lives, the lack of discussion is baffling. Is it because farming is a knotty problem and governments think there aren’t easy solutions? There could be many reasons for this lack of discussion, but the net effect is a lack of  policy and action driving the collective carbon footprint of food and farming in the right direction.

At Farm Carbon Toolkit we’ve been working on the ground, encouraging, informing and enabling farmers and growers to cut their carbon and increase sequestration on their farms for more than 10 years. We enable them to measure their carbon footprint, using the Farm Carbon Calculator, and point them to tried and tested solutions, advice, inspirational events and other learnings through the Toolkit.

The level of interest in our work has increased hugely over the past 18 months and we see that as very encouraging. Many farmers and growers want to reduce their carbon footprint, and can see the benefits. Legislation might well demand it soon, and some supply chains are already requiring their farmers to start going on a path towards net zero carbon, many of which point towards 2030 as an end date. Eight years from now…that’s not long.

How can farms be net zero?

All farms have greenhouse gas (carbon) emissions, such as from fuels, fertilisers, livestock, bought in materials, and soils. These all have to be accounted for, and steps must be made to minimise these emissions. Reducing emissions is the first step and every effort must be made to go as low as possible.

However farms are one of just two main industries in the UK that can also sequester (absorb) carbon – the other being forestry. The soils, hedges and woodlands of our farms can, when managed in the right way, lock-up carbon over a long time and keep it there. In the case of soils, when farms build organic matter it not only sequesters carbon, but also improves soil fertility, crop growth, water management, and biodiversity.

When the carbon emissions and sequestration are added together – the carbon balance, it’s quite possible for farms to be net zero, or better still ‘sub zero’ where they absorb more carbon than they emit. Or should that be ‘carbon positive’?!

Farms that have already made it

Plenty of farms that are using the Farm Carbon Calculator are already net or sub zero, including livestock, arable and horticultural businesses. Through a combination of reducing emissions and maximising sequestration, these farms are showing that farms can produce quality food, run successful businesses, and be part of the solution to the climate crisis.

Farmers and growers have a wide range of actions open to them, such as generating excess renewable energy and exporting it, reducing cultivations (which both saves fuel and increases soil organic matter), planting and better maintaining hedgerows, building soil organic matter, reducing fertiliser use (which also saves money), and changing the way livestock are fed.

There are huge business advantages to being net or sub zero – reducing costs, access emerging market trends, being in line with future subsidy systems, and morally doing the ‘right thing’.

Farming to be part of the solution

When farms transition to sub zero they are actually becoming a part of the climate solution in a very active way. When farms absorb more carbon than they emit, carbon dioxide is sucked out of the atmosphere providing a mechanism of helping to reduce the climate crisis.

This is clearly a positive in environmental terms, but also socially because it provides an empowering connection with customers to say that your business is doing such a good thing for society and the planet. And for customers to have the opportunity to buy carbon negative (or positive – the terms can be confusing!) food.

The bigger picture

We believe that many more farms could and should transition to sub zero carbon as soon as possible. It is certainly possible, the benefits are clear, and the planet requires it. So what’s stopping it?

Part of it lies with farmers and growers themselves, in having the knowledge and drive to do so. Learning new techniques, knowledge-exchange with peers, and rethinking business models and practices. We have seen many forward thinking and dedicated farmers achieve fantastic transformations in the carbon performance of their businesses. 

Farmers learning about good soil management

But critically, there is also a policy context in how the environment in which businesses work can be tweaked to favour low carbon practices. Some change is happening but much more is needed, and faster. The legal framework for business is important, ensuring that environmentally damaging practices are outlawed , whilst assessing the equivalence of imported produce. The subsidy regime must support sub zero farming in the future. Supply chains need to require and support businesses to meet net (or sub) zero targets.

The whole food system needs reform, from the farmers and growers who produce food, through the packhouses, retailers and processors that sell us food, through to us all who eat the food we buy. A systemic shift towards a better food system that values low carbon, low impact, quality food over merely price and convenience. The same level of thinking that got us into this mess will not give us the solutions we need to fix the problems.

Perhaps what’s missing though is the big picture. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and maybe what’s needed is a movement. Going back to COP26, what was important was the political context. One success of Glasgow is that the need to act is not in dispute now, it’s the how. The same doesn’t feel true in the farming industry…yet.

Taking a lead

Leadership is crucial for the advancement of critical issues, and in the area of farming and the climate crisis leadership does not appear to be in abundance. Equally, leadership by businesses collectively can lead to huge change, and this is being shown to be true with the climate crisis in other industries. Farmers and growers could become that lead in this sector.

Improving the carbon performance of a farm can go hand in hand with a whole host of other benefits, including more biodiversity (above and below ground), water management, reduced inputs, better soil management, and better food quality. These qualities, and many more, are also key to improvements in the environmental and social impacts of our farming and at FCT we see these wider benefits as critically important too, and know that many farmers and growers care deeply about this also.

So why not build momentum for Zero Carbon Farming 2030 in the UK? Is it possible to achieve? Maybe. Should it be achieved? The moral argument is hard to refute. Sometimes a vision and target is what’s needed, then work out how you get there. No one is pretending it will be easy, painless or cheap. But the planet is facing a crisis and we in farming should be part of the solution, not the problem.