NFU unveils its plan for British farming to deliver net zero

Achieving Net Zero report cover image_68792

The NFU has unveiled its vision of how British farming hopes to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

The NFU's new report, Achieving Net Zero: Farming’s 2040 Goal, sets out three pillars of activity that will help the industry to reach its ambitious goal. These are:

  • Improving farming’s productive efficiency
  • Improving land management and changing land use to capture more carbon
  • Boosting renewable energy and the wider bio-economy.

The first of these pillars is about reducing emissions, using a wide variety of techniques to enhance productivity and deliver the same output or more from every farm, and working smarter to use fewer inputs.

The second is about increasing farming’s ability to capture more carbon though bigger hedgerows, more trees and woodland, enhancing soil organic matter and conserving existing carbon stores in grassland and pasture.

The third pillar involves displacing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through bioenergy and bio-based materials such as hemp fibre and sheep’s wool.

Yearbook

NFU President Minette Batters said:

“There is no doubt that climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time and rising rapidly on the political agenda both at home and globally.

“Representing British farming, we recognise our unique position as both a source and a store for greenhouse gas emissions and, importantly, how we can build on our work so far to deliver climate neutral farming in the next 20 years.

“We aspire to be producing the most climate-friendly food in the world. The carbon footprint of British red meat is only 40 per cent 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. This ‘white paper’ provides a strong foundation on which to talk to others about joining us on our journey.

“We mean what we say about delivering against this aspiration and we have a sense of urgency for what is needed to achieve it. We need to implement pilots of the new Environmental Land Management scheme and productivity scheme to see how these work practically on the ground, as they will play a key part in achieving net zero. A new shared prosperity fund for rural development also needs to be in place and support from the current Industrial Strategy is crucial.

“I am also very clear that we can deliver on our commitment to net zero while retaining, if not growing, our agricultural capacity. British farmers are proud to produce food to some of the highest standards of animal welfare and environmental protection in the world. We must avoid anything that undermines UK food production, and merely exports our greenhouse gas emissions to other parts of the world.”


Frequently asked questions

It’s no coincidence that our first net zero pillar focuses on productivity. Improving farm productivity is at the core of our members’ businesses and to tackling our industry’s emissions. There are significant opportunities here for farmers to choose from a wide variety of techniques appropriate for their farming system to enhance productivity and deliver the same output or more from every farm, working smarter to use fewer inputs.

Our ambition is to be the best and we have a sense of urgency for what is needed to achieve it. We’ve already started work on an ambitious pilot for our net zero approach to present to Government. This contains a combination of awareness raising, testing of metrics and monitoring and practical on-farm measures under our three pillars.

We also need to implement pilots of the new Environmental Land Management scheme and productivity programmes to see how these work practically on the ground.

A new Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) for rural development needs to be in place - this is because as and when we leave the EU and the CAP, the proposed SPF would be a key source of financial support for farmers delivering a more carbon neutral sector when market conditions would otherwise prevent the uptake of solutions to address the net zero challenge.

Support from the current Industrial Strategy is also crucial – this is because a central recommendation of the Agricultural Productivity Working Group of the Food and Drink Sector Council under the Industrial Strategy is a new Evidence for Farming Initiative to support more robust decision making and best practice. The EFI would be well placed to address the practical and policy needs in delivering net zero, dynamically analysing and assimilating the best evidence of what works.

This is why improving productivity – improving the efficiency of practices which give rise to methane and nitrous oxide on farm – is front and centre of our aspiration. This includes a range of measures, for example improving the health of cattle and sheep and precision farming for crops to deliver nutrients more efficiently.

This is too simple an assumption to make. Business decisions made by farmers are more complex than that. For example at the NFU’s last Net Zero Steering Group, a livestock farmer explained that his aim was to be more productive with what he’s got. Productivity improvements (for him) is about reducing inputs, so scanning ewes doesn’t give him anymore lambs but means he can split ewes into groups and feed accordingly therefore reducing his purchased feed inputs and also ensuring the ewes are in the right condition come lambing. This will reduce his GHG footprint.

We know that improvements in efficiency can take us down the road to reducing our methane (and all our) emissions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report on Climate Change and Land identified a range of practices which can reduce greenhouse gas emissions including:

  • Improved fertiliser and manure management
  • Use of varieties and genetic improvements of crops and livestock
  • Increasing soil organic matter where possible.
It also noted that reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions footprint of livestock products can also lead to absolute reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

However we don’t, and neither does science, have all the answers or solutions at our fingertips now. For example, new research in New Zealand has found that there are low methane emitting sheep which produce 10% less methane but this is far from market at the moment.

In its land use report last year, the Committee on Climate Change called for more to be done on agricultural R&D to address historical under-investment. We need research to start now to find solutions for the future.

It is also important not to confuse UK diet and red meat consumption with the opportunity for ‘climate-friendly’ red meat production in the UK. British beef has a carbon footprint 2.5x 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.

We see the third pillar of our vision as being about new opportunities for agricultural production. The NFU’s estimates of bioenergy production and the land area required are in line with the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change and the Royal Society.

It’s important to remember that this report is based on what we know now and the current technologies available to our members now. This, and hence the balance of how we achieve net zero across the three pillars, could change significantly over the next 20 years.

In 2018 the Royal Society said “In some sectors, notably agriculture and aviation, greenhouse gas emissions will be difficult to eliminate entirely, so we will need technologies to compensate by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere".

Agriculture can take carbon dioxide out of circulation altogether by producing bio-based substitute materials for buildings and industry and coupling bioenergy to carbon capture and storage.

With what we know now we cannot forecast such future change. There are too many uncertainties ahead. We know land in the future will need to be multi-functional, delivering a range of goods and services. It is also clear that we will need the full range of tools to meet future demand, making sure that our UK farmers and growers have access to the very best possible technology and innovation to drive efficiency, quality, yields and profitability.

The NFU does not see large-scale rewilding as an economically or socially realistic option. However there are likely to be many opportunities to combine agri-environmental benefit with on-farm carbon storage, e.g. in enhanced hedgerows.

Our grassland, most of it permanent, is a very valuable stock of carbon, which is under the stewardship of our livestock farmers. Maintaining this store is important and we understand there are some opportunities to increase the carbon stored e.g. by liming acidic soils where appropriate or reducing compaction to help improve productivity. Productive systems are more likely to return more organic matter to the soil.

The NFU understands that new research has highlighted the extent of emissions from lowland peatlands in agricultural production. However we are also aware that the opportunity cost of peatland restoration may be substantial (both socially and economically) e.g. where high value horticulture is now practised. The East Anglian Fens occupies 4% of England’s farmed area, but produces more than 7% of England’s total agricultural production (including one-third of England’s fresh vegetables and one-fifth of England’s potatoes) worth £1.23 billion.

That’s not to say that change is already happening. Some farmers are already changing practice to better manage and maintain peatlands. 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.

It’s important to remember that our report is based on what we know now and the current technologies and incentives available to our members now. This, and hence the balance of how we achieve net zero across the three pillars, could change significantly over the next 20 years.

Land-based renewables already offset about 1.4 MtCO2e per year, with the largest contribution from anaerobic digesters producing biomethane for the gas network, but a significant offset attributable to land used for solar and wind farms. It is reasonable to assume that renewable energy from the land will roughly double over the next two decades.

It’s important to remember that land used for solar and wind is multi-functional e.g. we have solar farms also providing habitat for biodiversity or being used for sheep grazing.

Our estimates are based on work by the Committee on Climate Change and the Royal Society report on Greenhouse Gas Removals.

Some analysis has been done for commodities like British beef and milk, both of which we believe to be about 40% of the global average – so we can justify backing British farming to meet consumer demand in the UK (and even exporting overseas).

We know that recent welcome improvement to the UK’s national greenhouse gas inventory has provided UK-specific data on emissions associated with various on-farm practices. We need to understand what difference this new data has made to the GHG footprint of the key products from our various sectors. This will help us get a better handle on the baseline for our aspiration but also how we match up to the competition.

However whilst we might be able to compare ourselves with similar systems across the world there are things which make us uniquely British e.g. our geography – our maritime climate, the latitude on which we sit - and the diversity of our farming systems.

We have developed a detailed plan with the support of our members and elected officials, but the delivery of our aspiration will require action by Government and other stakeholders. We are presenting agriculture as part of the solution to this challenge, but we will need new policy measures, new investment and the support of the supply chain, consumers, environmental NGOs and others to help us succeed.

We have a Net Zero Vision Steering Group consisting of a member of each NFU national commodity board and forum. This gives us truly cross sectoral insight to what is possible for different types of farm business structure, system and sector etc.. The group is and is chaired by John Davies, NFU Cymru President with support from Guy Smith, NFU Deputy President. The steering group drives all aspects of the NFU’s work on net zero and provides the opportunity for detailed technical discussion.

We have started work on a roadmap, breaking our aspiration and requirements down into different timelines. We’re consulting with our members on an ambitious pilot for our net zero approach to present to Government. We are in the process of setting up a Science Advisory Group to ensure that we continually refining our ambition and responding to the latest science.

We also need to implement pilots of the new Environmental Land Management schemes and productivity programmes to see how these work practically on the ground.

A new Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) for rural development needs to be in place - this is because as and when we leave the EU and the CAP, the proposed SPF would be a key source of financial support for farmers delivering a more carbon neutral sector when market conditions would otherwise prevent the uptake of solutions to address the net zero challenge.

Support from the current Industrial Strategy is also crucial – this is because a central recommendation of the Agricultural Productivity Working Group of the Food and Drink Sector Council under the Industrial Strategy is a new Evidence for Farming Initiative to support more robust decision making and best practice. The EFI would be well placed to address the practical and policy needs in delivering net zero, dynamically analysing and assimilating the best evidence of what works.

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Last edited on: 19:09:2019

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  • Posted by: Maurice E. HallPosted on: 30/09/2019 11:10:46

    Comment: Re. Net zero.
    I, and others, have a serious concern for the future viability of upland and hill farms. I believe, however, "Net Zero" could provide a valuable "alternative income" from energy production via bio-digestion of farm organic waste, and Eco system payments which would become more readily accessible.
    The biggest drawback is that the holdings I seek to protect cannot afford to invest in on-farm digesters. I am looking for examples of "Community Digesters" - which would form some sort of relationship with farmers who contribute waste - possibly in the form of digestate (soil conditioner), subsidised electricity, and bio-fuels.
    There are many obstacles to such a scheme, especially transportation, storage, management and biosecurity risks from using slurries and manures - but is it worth setting up a trial scheme to demonstrate the potential?

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