A Cambridge University study said the industry could meet the Government’s 80 per cent emissions reduction if it expanded the area of natural forests and wetlands to match its European neighbours.
However, this would require new polices promoting both sustainable increases in farm yields and sparing land for climate mitigation.
Reducing meat consumption and food waste will also be important, according to the study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
It says by upping forest cover from 12 per cent to 30 per cent of UK land over the next 35 years – close to that of France and Germany – and restoring 700,000 hectares of wet peatland, these habitats would act as a carbon ‘sink’, sucking in and storing carbon.
However, to make space for habitat restoration, and to meet rising levels of food demand, land sparing would depend on increases in farm yields to enable the sector to produce more with less farmland.
Prof Andrew Balmford, senior author of the study, said: “Land is a source of greenhouse gases if it is used to farm fertiliser-hungry crops or methane-producing cattle, or it can be a sink for greenhouse gases – through sequestration. If we increase woodland and wetland, those lands will be storing carbon in trees, photosynthesising it in reeds, and shunting it down into soils.
“We estimate that by actively increasing farm yields, the UK can reduce the amount of land that is a source of greenhouse gases, increase the ‘sink’, and sequester enough carbon to hit national emission reduction targets for the agriculture industry by 2050.”
He said it was down to policy makers to deliver mechanisms which allowed sustainable high yield farming, but not at the expense of animal welfare, soil and water quality, as well as safeguarding and restoring habitats.
Researchers from the Universities of California, Bangor, Aberdeen, East Anglia, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Forestry Commission, Rothamsted Research, ADAS UK and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) have been working with the University of Cambridge to identify solutions to improve farm management, optimise breeding programmes to produce plants which are better at capturing soil nutrients, sunlight and water, and to produce more efficient animals which produce less methane.
Dr Toby Bruce, co-author from Rothamsted Research, added: "The current findings show the value of land sparing for reducing greenhouse gases. To allow this productivity needs to increase on the remaining land, for example, by minimising crop losses to pests, weeds and diseases or by improving crop nutrition.”
Agriculture currently produces about 10 per cent of all the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.
You can download the report here