NFU24: Delivering net zero in the sugar beet sector

Environment and climate
Michael Sly and Sam Williamson

Photograph: NFU Sugar Board chair Michael Sly and NFU Sugar adviser Sam Williamson

Private finance has huge potential to help growers deliver upon their net zero ambitions. At NFU Conference, NFU Sugar announced details of an ongoing project which aims to unlock funding opportunities for growers.

NFU Sugar Board chair, Michael Sly, unveiled a partnership with NFU Energy as part of NFU Sugar’s centrepiece project for Conference. It aims to provide a means by which growers are fairly rewarded for environmental services and emissions savings which they are able to deliver on farm.

Michael said the partnership would allow the sector to engage with private environmental marketplaces such as the LENs (Landscape Enterprise Networks) in a way that “the NFU has never done before”, marking a “hugely significant step” for the sector.

LENs brings private and public-sector organisations together around a common interest in funding nature-based solutions within a given geography, acting as a broker between buyers and groups of landowners.

“The point of LENs is that it’s the farmer’s choice and agency – if you can think of something that works for your farm we’re asking you to put that forward,” Dan Sokell, Managing Director at LENS East of England explained.

The work aligns with a key NFU Manifesto ask for regulation that supports the development of environmental markets which work alongside domestic food energy and fibre, with clear rules and standards to allow farmers and buyers to take part with confidence and for fair reward.

NFU Sugar identified key enabling principles needed for net zero projects:

  • Projects should only reference activities that relate to the growing and supply of sugar beet.
  • Projects should allow a grower to choose whether to carry out additional activities in return for any value generated.
  • Projects should ensure any value added as result of practice or investment should accrue to those that carried it out – the transition must be equitable to be sustainable.
  • Projects should recognise that a grower’s data remains their own intellectual property.

NFU Energy intends to function as supply aggregators, connecting growers, through NFU Sugar, to funders administering incentives.

A vehicle to collaborate

Following the government’s announcement at the start of the year on the latest tranche of ELMs measures and increased payment rates, panellists discussed the role LENs would play in the context of an improved agricultural support offer.

Matt Ryan, Regeneration Lead at Nestlé UK & Ireland, explained that LENs would act as a platform for partnership: “Rather than having multiple projects with growers we see that the NFU could be a vital link between corporate agri-environment initiatives – maximising efficiency and reducing complexity, and paperwork, for growers.

“We see LENs as a vehicle to collaborate. We want to make this as simple as possible and have a coherent ask for growers rather than multiple businesses and projects.”

I know that discussions around sustainability can often come across more stick than carrot for growers, but this project demonstrates that there is an incentive there.”

NFU Sugar Board chair Michael Sly

For LENs to work for growers, it would need to be clear and understandable, Michael Sly said. Growers would need to know what is expected of them and when they can expect to receive payments.

The offer must be flexible too, Michael said, able to coexist with food production and government schemes such as the SFI.

A partnership for the future

NFU Sugar adviser Sam Williamson said the project was notable in the sense that Nestlé approached growers directly: “There are certain things growers are better placed to deliver than the processor.

“There is only so far we can go with options already on the table such as ELMs and the SFI, but connecting with LENs can help growers deliver more, sooner within their own enterprises.”

The project began when Nestlé approached NFU Sugar with an ambition to directly incentivise environmentally friendly farming practices on-farm. This led NFU Sugar to the LENs.

“The collaborative approach with LENs impressed us,” said Lisa Howkins, Sales and Marketing Director at NFU Energy. Lisa explained how the LENs’ processes align well with functions already carried out by the NFU Energy Compliance Scheme team.

“I know that discussions around sustainability can often come across more stick than carrot for growers, but this project demonstrates that there is an incentive there,” Michael said.

“I hope that what we’ve spotlighted here offers reassurance that there are opportunities out there, like the LENs, to facilitate grower access to financial support from supply chain partners who are interested in improving the environmental footprint of the sugar they procure here in the UK.”

Meet the speakers from this session

Dr Zoe Leach OBE

NFU East Regional Director

Zoe joined the National Farmers’ Union in August 2023 and is the Regional Director for the East Region. This involves looking after NFU members’ interests from North Norfolk to West Sussex. 

Zoe’s passion is to ensure that members are properly represented and supported by the NFU, and in turn that they understand the significant benefits that being a member of such an incredible organisation brings.

Prior to joining the NFU, she worked for the National Pig Association from 2008 to 2022. She took on the role of Chief Executive Officer in 2014 and led the organisation through some very turbulent times.

This followed five years working in the Livestock Science Unit within Defra where she managed the research and development portfolio on livestock production.

Previous to that she ran a large pig rearing unit and trials facility for the integrated pig production company BQP in Suffolk. She gained a PhD in outdoor sow management and welfare with Cambac JMR Research in 1998.

Zoe has been awarded the OBE in the first King’s Birthday honours list. She was granted the honour in recognition of her services to the pig industry.

Michael Sly

NFU Sugar Board chair

Michael chairs NFU Sugar Board meetings and is the lead spokesperson representing sugar beet growers with British Sugar, the media, NFU Council and NFU Policy Board. He represents growers in monthly meetings and annual contract negotiations with British Sugar, playing a key role in the NFU Sugar negotiating team.

Michael farms in the Fens of North Cambridgeshire and South Lincolnshire, farming 2000 hectares, across three farming businesses. The family has been involved in drainage and farming in the Fens since the 17th century.

The farms grow wheat, spring barley, sugar beet, spring beans, oilseed rape, marrowfat peas and condiment mustard. They are part of the RSPB’s Farmland Bird Friendly Zone, which now covers more than 4000 hectares and landscape scale benefits covering 230km sq. Also with fellow mustard growers, they are working on a landscape scale bee and pollinator project with Unilever.

Michael has also served as NFU county chair and the council delegate for Cambridgeshire, the most farmed county in the UK, chairing the East Anglian regional board for four years, as well serving as chair of the NFU Audit committee.

Michael is chair of the North Level District Internal Drainage Board, serving 34,000 hectares. He spent 10 years on the Anglian Northern Regional Flood and Coastal Committee. He is currently chair of the English Mustard Growers and vice chair of Condimentum LTD for the milling of mustard seeds and processing mint leaf in Norwich, working with Unilever’s Colman’s brand.

Sam Williamson

NFU Sugar Adviser

Sam works with the wider NFU policy and sector teams to ensure that sugar is represented in cross-sector policy consultations impacting the future of the industry.

The role extends to public affairs and communications, working closely with the wider industry to ensure that sugar growers' interests are heard by government. He also oversees NFU Sugar grower engagement.

Sam was on the NFU agricultural policy graduate scheme prior to joining the NFU Sugar team.

Lisa Howkins

Sales and Marketing Director, NFU Energy

Lisa is the Sales and Marketing Director at NFU Energy. She is NFU Energy’s strategic lead on the collaboration with NFU Sugar and Nestle.

Steven Leil

Compliance Scheme Manager, NFU Energy

Steven is the Compliance Scheme Manager at NFU Energy. He is the operational lead on the project which has commenced in collaboration with NFU Sugar and Nestle.

Dan Sokell

Managing Director, LENS East of England

Dan established the East of England (EOE) LENs in 2019 and continues to lead delivery of the scheme. To date it has contracted £6m between buyers of ecosystem services and 110 farm businesses in the East of England area.

Matt Ryan

Regeneration Lead, Nestlé UK & Ireland

Matt leads Nestle UK&I’s efforts to transition its locally sourced ingredients to regenerative production systems which protect and restore the natural resources we all depend upon.

He is committed to delivering positive environmental outcomes in support of long-term resilience and an advocate for grassroots, locally relevant action to address global challenges.

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