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Productivity gains key to environmental progress

As farmers are encouraged to cut their carbon footprint, Alex Black takes a look at how improving environmental standards could also boost the balance sheet.

The sustainability drive from processors and retailers comes as they look to improve their environmental footprint.
The sustainability drive from processors and retailers comes as they look to improve their environmental footprint.

Tackling the farm’s carbon footprint could have positive implications for the balance sheet as the industry looks to move towards net zero.

A drive for sustainability was also coming from processors and retailers, as they looked down the supply chain to improve their own environmental footprint.

Consumers were increasingly looking for sustainable options, with a recent Kantar study, ‘Who Cares, Who Does’, discovering onefifth of consumers said they had acquired more environmentally friendly habits since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kantar said adopting more sustainable practices would help win over a ‘growing eco-active consumer group’.

Increasing productivity could help agriculture tackle its carbon footprint, as well as potentially having a financial benefit.

Graham Redman, author of the 2021 John Nix Pocketbook, said becoming more productive decreased the carbon output per tonne, litre or kilo.

He said: “Otherwise you could reduce the size of the farm and tick a box saying I am now producing less carbon.

We need to look at raising output without raising costs.” Emily Norton, head of rural research at Savills, said there were various reasons why farmers should be interested in their carbon footprint.

She said: “Carbon is expensive. Where we are using excessive energy on-farm, there is a direct cost and a carbon cost.”


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Renewable energy

 

In places, she said this was as simple as replacing traditional lightbulbs with LED units or using renewable energy to power refrigeration needs.

Ms Norton said there would be government policy coming down the line, so it was good for farmers to know where they stood.

She said: “Supply chains are increasingly interested in the environmental impact as well.

Whether that is processors or supermarkets.” She added there was not a right or wrong way of doing things, but simply having the information on the farm’s footprint could start to inform decision making.

Mr Redman added there was lots both individual farmers and the industry as a whole could do.

He said: “Geneticists can focus on cows and lower levels of methane emissions.

Manufacturers can look at tractors which are more efficient.” Entrepreneurial spirit would be important as new opportunities might arise for farmers to tap into as other industries looked to lower their carbon footprints.

But Ms Norton said specific market mechanisms were not yet there, but investors had the appetite to buy and farmers had the appetite to sell carbon products.

She said: “If we have to wait for Government to tell us what to do they will do it with a stick, rather than a carrot.” Mr Redman said there were potentially big opportunities for those with the land to sequester carbon, but it was not just about planting trees.

He said: “It might come with government support or incentives for other companies with larger emissions to pay farmers to do sequestering on their behalf.” In the uplands, there were also ways for farmers to play their part.

Opportunities NFU uplands forum chairman Thomas Binns said protecting the carbon already stored in grassland, alongside looking at opportunities to increase sequestration or rewetting peatland, could be done in the uplands with grazing livestock, ‘without sacrificing a valuable source of food production’.

Mr Binns said: “There are a number of farmers recording farm productivity to identify where best to focus efforts on improving genetics and so reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and, despite challenges in the planning system, farmers are investing in renewable energies where possible, such as solar panels, wind farms and anaerobic digesters.”

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