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Molly Scott: 'We face a climate emergency. It’s time for major land re-farm'

Last week, in an important and fascinating event, I brought together a group of experts on agriculture, soil health, diet and land management to explore together how farming can become part of the solution to climate change and biodiversity loss.

The ‘Land re-farm roundtable’ seemed an appropriate title for such a gathering.

 

The event, held at Eastbrook organic Farm near Swindon, came in a week when the World Meteorological Organization revealed global greenhouse gas emissions reached a new high last year.

 

The last time our planet experienced current concentrations the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea levels were 10-20 metres higher.

 

Then came the UN’s annual assessment of global climate pledges.

 

This exposed the yawning gap that exists between the drastic cuts in emissions that are needed to prevent climate chaos with current projections based on pledged actions.

 

The BBC’s controversial meat documentary which revealed the impacts of intensive and factory farmed livestock on the climate, environment and animal welfare was broadcast in the same week.

 

With farming currently accounting for an estimated 10% of the UK’s carbon emissions, it is clear that we need to see a transition in agriculture and land use so that it turns from carbon emitter to carbon sink.

 

While the pledge by the National Farmers Union to achieve net zero carbon by 2040 is welcome, given the emergency we face, we need to go further and faster.


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The roundtable participants, who included the Head of Horticulture at the Soil Association, a soil advisor and researcher, organic farmers and those representing smallholders, discussed a wide range of issues.

 

There was a particular focus on how to better balance the relationship between food production and environmental protection; how land can be managed to capture carbon; how to restore soil health and biodiversity; the role of livestock and the barriers to change.

 

The participants brought a huge range of experience and knowledge to the table. While inevitably there was a wide range of views, there was universal acceptance that we face a climate emergency and that we need to rapidly transform land use and farming. But there was also a shared understanding that changing agricultural systems also needs a transformation of mindsets.

 

There was broad agreement that we need a shift towards a more plant-based diet, while also acknowledging that livestock animals can increase soil fertility and therefore crop yields.

 

There was a clear consensus on the need to end the growing of grains as animal feed to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of livestock farming. But there was also agreement that a small amount of high-quality meat, fed in grass, and with most of the value staying with the farmer, would continue to be part of many diets into the future.

 

To help achieve all this it was agreed there needs to be large scale investment in training and research and support for farmers in switching production towards fruit and vegetables, which currently rely heavily on imports. There is an urgent need to value vegetable growers more, to encourage horticultural skills, and to provide access to land for those wishing to grow vegetables.

 

There was widespread support for regenerative farming, where we look beyond sustaining soils and support the regeneration of land as a living system, reducing the need for fertilisers and enhancing the role of soil as a carbon sink.

 

Also receiving strong support was the need for clearer labelling of food products for consumers so they provide not only nutritional value but also information on the carbon impact of production and transport too.

 

This was an extremely timely roundtable event, coming just ahead of the COP25 talks in Madrid. Those attending provided clear proof that the South West is pioneering successful small-scale and sustainable farming methods and can lead a land use and climate-friendly farming revolution.

 

The most important conclusion from the event was that we need to encourage this sort of constructive dialogue and counter both the demonisation of farmers and the attempt to portray the debate as a binary conflict between farmers and vegans.

 

After all - and an obvious point although one often missed - the food that is eaten by those who shun all meat and dairy products is still produced by farmers and without them we would all go hungry.

 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England. She is a member of the Agriculture Committee in the European Parliament.

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