How can UK farming become carbon neutral by 2040?

The key points from the National Farmers’ Union plan to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions across England and Wales.

17 September 2019
image credit: Getty Images

Going meat-free and cutting beef production isn’t the answer to preventing greenhouse gas emissions in UK farming, according to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU). That’s because UK production doesn’t rely on high-intensity farming or the destruction of forests to put cattle out to pasture, says the organisation, as it puts forward its own proposals as a counterweight to the Committee for Climate Change's recommendations.

While admitting there is no silver bullet for the problem, the NFU believes three-quarters of the UK’s agricultural emissions can be offset by growing fuel for power stations and then capturing and burying the carbon dioxide. This measure could even lead to energy plants becoming the nation’s biggest crop after wheat.

Agriculture causes about 10% of the UK’s climate emissions, although 90% is from methane produced by livestock and nitrous oxide from fields.

“We aspire to be producing the most climate-friendly food in the world,” NFU president Minette Batters said. “The carbon footprint of British red meat is only 40% of the world average. And we can go further, whether that is through improving our productivity, using our own land to take up and store carbon, planting hedgerows and trees to capture even more, and boosting our renewable energy output. We know that there is no single answer to the climate change challenge facing us all.

“That is why we must work across a range of internationally recognised inventories and utilise the best available science, working in partnership with concerted support from government, stakeholders and the wider supply chain... We must avoid anything that undermines UK food production and merely exports our greenhouse gas emissions to other parts of the world.”

She added it was crucial farmers were given incentives to deal with emissions and have long-term funding in place.

The NFU set out three areas that the UK agriculture sector can use to meet its target in the next two decades.

1. Boosting productivity

Let’s not throw beef out with the bath water, says the NFU. “British beef has a carbon footprint 2.5 times lower than the global average, so we want to retain this advantage and have the potential flexibility for export growth, to markets where the carbon footprint would otherwise be higher,” it said.

A quarter of farming’s emissions could be cut by raising animals and growing crops more efficiently, suggested the NFU.

Technology is key to reducing the emissions caused by cattle and fertiliser, along with introducing new practices into farming, said the plan.

Measures include using feed additives to reduce methane emissions from livestock and gene editing for disease resistance to improve the health of cattle and sheep, which could also boost growth rates. It wants to introduce precision farming to deliver nutrients more efficiently to crops and animals too.

Waste should also been seen as an untapped goldmine, says the NFU plan, like using anaerobic digestion to convert animal manures, crops and crop by-products into renewable energy.

It’s not going to come to market tomorrow, but there is promising new research coming out too. New Zealand has found that there are low methane emitting sheep which produce 10% less methane.

2. Smarter planting

Perhaps not an opinion that would be popular with environmentalists, but large-scale rewilding is not an economically or socially realistic option, according to the NFU. However, it does believe there are many opportunities to combine agri-environmental benefit with on-farm carbon storage, such as growing more hedgerows.

It called on DEFRA support a network of demonstration farms and the development of a mechanism for reward payments for carbon storage, the plan said.

More woodland planting on farms, as well as peatland and wetland restoration, would also deliver greenhouse gas emissions savings too.

Some farmers are already changing practice to better manage and maintain peatlands, said the NFU. There are examples of upland farmers participating in restoration schemes and lowland farmers moving to minimum/ no-tillage systems to reduce erosion, and/or using cover crops to return organic matter to the soil.

3. Renewable energy

Crops on farms could be in for a shake up.

Growing willow, miscanthus grass and other energy crops to use in bioenergy and storage power plants could offset half of farming’s emissions, said the NFU. The technology to makes this happen is only at the pilot stage, but the NFU is confident it could be scaled up.

There is also a need to double wind, solar and biomethane energy on farms. Land used for solar and wind is multi-functional too, with some solar farms also providing habitat for biodiversity or being used for sheep grazing.

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