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Communicating carbon reduction schemes to farmers

A bit more of an in depth explanation as to what Becky is up to with her Nuffield studies this year from a blog written for the Food Climate Research Network.

This year, I have been lucky enough to have been awarded a Nuffield scholarship, which gives me an opportunity to spend 18 months travelling and studying in depth, on a topic which I am passionate about and that could potentially help to transform our industry for the future.  My topic, is intimately connected to what I do as a day job, and is all to do with how we communicate carbon reduction schemes to farmers.  My research is exploring two main questions:

1. How do we effectively communicate the benefits to the farm business of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and get farmers interested and engaged in emissions reductions? 

2. What can we learn from other countries about implementing an effective emissions reductions strategy that will inspire farmers to want to participate?

This journey will take me on a global tour and allow me to meet farmers, other people like me involved in running projects, research groups, organisations, government representatives and others to try and understand in more detail what we need to do to create genuinely sustainable farming systems that are profitable and resilient - and crucially how to involve farmers in this process so that theory leads to on the ground practical action. 

As I highlighted earlier, this topic is very closely connected to what I already do with farmers in my day job.  I spend a lot of time talking, writing and trying to engage with farmers about the business benefits of reducing emissions from farms, and how this can be made possible at a practical level.  However it is not a subject which excites most farmers and as such dissemination is a problem.  As an organisation, we can organise events, write articles, run campaigns on social media, and develop carbon footprinting calculators, factsheets and case studies; and the material can all be based on cutting edge science and of excellent quality - but if farmers aren’t interested or don’t view it as relevant to their business, and as such, don’t engage, we won’t achieve our goal and the problems remain. 

We can’t get away from the fact that however optimistic we are, we won’t ever engage with 100% of farmers.  But we can try and increase the numbers of people who do engage by communicating the issues in ways that demonstrate their relevance to mainstream business viability rather than being a ‘nice extra.’ It seems to me that the challenge of effective communication will involve multiple approaches: effective marketing (do we communicate a carbon reduction ‘by stealth?’ – e.g. promoting it as a cost cutting measure), clear translation of science and its application in the field, and the development of robust accounting methodologies that are grounded in science, are easy to use and have practical worth.

Key questions

Some of the main questions my research will be exploring, as I travel around the world, are as follows:

Highlighting the economic benefits

How can we highlight more explicitly the economic benefits that arise from implementing some of these management changes alongside the environmental benefits?

Is there currently a lack of business focus in climate communications?  A lot of the practices advocated to help reduce farm GHGs involve becoming more efficient.  These may, for example, include nutrient management planning and targeting applications of manures or fertilisers to crop requirements. This has obvious benefits in terms of a reduction in nitrous oxide emissions associated with fertiliser applications, but there will often also be economic benefits where less nitrogen fertiliser is needed (with no yield loss).  

The same arises in the case of livestock efficiency through feed planning and improved attention to animal health; or by improving energy efficiency and associated fuel use in arable operations.  However, the framing of these benefits may be critical.  For example, instead of talking about reducing use of fertilisers or energy, why don’t we start talking about increasing profit?  Maybe instead of focusing on the latest cut in the milk price, maybe we should start showing how farmers can get 2-3 pence per litre more for your milk – all by things that can be done at minimal cost to the business? 

We need more research or studies that quantify the business benefits of implementing some of these management options.  So far, the bottom line benefits have been suggested (rather than proved which is difficult) – should we be promoting these practices more, and highlighting the economic opportunities as well as the GHG reduction potential? 

Carbon as a ‘nice extra’

Following on from my last point, many of the farmers that I talk to think of carbon (alongside certain other environmental issues) as a nice extra that they will focus on when they have the time and inclination. It is not rooted in core business.  To my mind, the challenge is therefore - how do we shift their perception that carbon reduction is just a nice extra, to being a mainstream issue that should be a focus for all farms, and is intrinsically linked to production efficiency and management?

The use of metrics and footprinting tools

Another key issue is the availability and use of metrics.  We are not at a point where we have a farm- level consistent methodology that is universally applicable, and replicable across our farming systems.  How can we create and roll out a tool that farmers can use simply (and that doesn’t take too much time / data entry  /effort) but which provides robust results for them to base management decisions on and helps them evaluate the impact of future management changes on emissions and costs.  

I am not naive enough to think that we can readily come up with a one-size-fits-all tool that is sufficiently attractive to be suddenly adopted by all farmers. However, through the use of farmer discussion groups who are used to benchmarking, there could potentially be opportunities for comparisons and peer to peer knowledge sharing that could highlight the benefits of the various footprinting tools out there (or in development) as a business ‘health check’.

Metrics have their part to play, they demonstrate impact, but they need to be used in conjunction with advice and discussion.  If we can create metrics that allow farmers to assess where they currently are, and then use advisors to help and guide them to see where changes in current management might be most effective this may be a good balance.  The footprinting exercise can be completed annually to show the impact of changing management on emissions and business performance.   

The need for clarity of message

The climate change issue is already complicated and multi-faceted. This is all the more true when it comes to  agriculture, which, as a biological system generates a range of greenhouse gases, and a sector operating across a huge diversity of production systems, soil types, landscapes, and the weather.  Our challenge as advisors and communicators is to try and make the complexity of issues and possible ways forward as relevant, simple and consistent as possible for the farmers.  Often I have heard the comment when someone has been speaking about the risks of climate change and extreme weather, or the threat of soil degradation – “that’s all great, but what do you want me to do differently?”

So what now – and can you help?

Over the next year I will be travelling around the world to look at this issue in more detail.  At the moment, I am planning on travelling to Australia and New Zealand to look at some of their research and farmer projects – these include Young Carbon Farmers, the Future Beef project and Farm 300.  I am also planning a trip to the U.S. to look at their Climate Hub Model and some of their extension practices.  I will be going to Scotland to look at their Farming for a Better Climate initiative which works with farmers over three years to help reduce their carbon footprint and assess the business benefits of doing so, as well as going to see the Cool Farm tool developers and their research.  I am planning to go to Ireland to find out more about their green marketing and quality assurance that they are promoting through Origin Green and the use of the Carbon Navigator with Irish farmers. Other visits in Europe are in the pipeline, and I don’t want to miss anything out!

The more that I delve into this topic, the more questions it raises.  It would be great if members of the Food Climate Research Network who are working on these issues could come together and share ideas.  So this is a plea for ideas or links to projects or people who are working with farmers on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. What’s worked well and what hasn’t?  What initiatives have seen good farmer attendance? What information has enabled that lightbulb moment with your farmers and inspired them to make a difference?  

Although we all work in different climates, with different systems and farmers, who need context specific technical information, we can all share information and ideas on knowledge and dissemination of research.  How do we help our farmers to understand why this is important, and inspire them to take action? If we can work collectively, we are surely able to achieve more and create a truly sustainable future for the land and our farmers. 

You can contact Becky at [email protected].