Farmers might understandably be concerned about yesterday’s call in the Committee for Climate Change’s latest report, Land Use: Policies for a Net Zero UK, for the amount of UK land covered by trees to be increased to at least 17% and for 50% of upland peat and 25% of lowland peat to be restored, and for the UK’s consumption of beef, lamb and dairy to be reduced by 20%.
But in fact these policy recommendations could represent a real opportunity for farming businesses.
While there are currently no regulations that force farmers to adopt any of the proposed approaches, the case for ‘Net Zero’ will grow more compelling over the next decade, especially with the Agriculture Bill being reintroduced to Parliament last week, which places public money for public goods front and centre of agricultural policy and legislation going forward.
Farming businesses which get ahead of the curve in responding to this new agenda - including engaging with carbon markets and using knowledge and technology to help get ready for some of these changes – will ultimately have a commercial advantage.
The future is in sustainable farming and UK farmers could get ahead of competitors around the world by embracing sustainability initiatives.
There is much that could be readily embraced in the report’s recommendations. Restoring peatland in the uplands can coexist with sheep farming, which is heavily reliant on subsidies. Farmers will continue to be supported but with an emphasis on re-wetting and managing peatland to capture and store carbon, with sheep farmed as a separate economic activity on that land.
However, storing lowland peatland, for example in East Anglia, where it has been artificially drained, will be problematic and is likely to meet resistance as it is prime productive cropland.
Nevertheless, with commodity food markets offering only thin margins and little certainty to support investment, selling carbon and other environmental benefits will be attractive to some landowners.
Trees are likely to be planted on less productive land and can generate an income stream for farmers, as a carbon store and/or as amenity or commercial woodland, with farmers focusing on farming their more productive land. This is available to all and would be entirely voluntary but smaller and highly geared farm businesses might find it difficult to make land available.
The recommended reduction of 20% in beef and dairy consumption will affect markets in the UK and beyond. But this is not about UK production and our temperate climate will continue to be well-placed to produce red meat and dairy, but consumer sentiment is demanding that this is more sustainably produced.
This offers a point of difference to red meat and milk products from international sources so the key to success is to produce good quality food that addresses consumer concerns and builds brand loyalty.
Future trade deals could also have significant impacts on how we consume, and the ideal situation would be where the UK can achieve the Net Zero Goal by 2050 whilst positioning itself as the most sustainable food producer globally.
To address this challenge the UK supply chain (both retailers and processors) need to support and promote high production standards – in terms of environmental impact and high animal welfare – so that consumers continue to buy British beef and dairy at the expense of imports, which often have a greater environmental cost.
Technology offers ways to reduce methane emissions from cattle, for example through feed additives or genetic selection.
Sustainable productivity growth is a key driver in achieving Net Zero from agriculture and land use: this allows more to be grown with less land and limited increases in inputs - and frees up land for other uses. Again, this relies on skills and technology to adopt new crop varieties and agronomic practices.
While Government has a key role to play through developing an effective strategy and providing resources to address the historical productivity gap in UK agriculture (including skills, training and knowledge exchange), farming businesses will deliver change.
This can be a win-win-win for farmers, consumers and the wider economy.
The report’s recommendations should be embraced, and the Net Zero Goals seen as the framework for investment and growth for the sector over the next 30 years.