Farmers will have to adapt their businesses to meet climate change targets, but what does that mean for food production? Ewan Pate speaks to former NFU Scotland president and co-chairman of the Farming for 1.5 degrees project, Nigel Miller, to find out.
The debate on climate change is something farmers have to take control of, otherwise they will just be pushed around.
That is the central thought that has encouraged former NFU Scotland president Nigel Miller to take on the joint chairmanship of the independent Farming for 1.5 Degrees group.
With 10 members, including four farmers as well as scientists and environmentalists, the Edinburgh- based group is to explore how a low carbon landscape can support a bright future for farming and food.
In an interview with Farmers Guardian, Mr Miller said: “Unless we can change mindsets, we will not have the freedom to farm in the future.
“I want to see ideas that farmers can get behind to help keep average temperatures rising by more than 1.5degC while at the same time meeting the Scottish Government’s net zero carbon emissions by 2045 (the Westminster’s Government’s target is 2050).”
As a livestock farmer at Stow, near Galashiels, and a qualified vet, he takes a broad view of the agricultural sector and can see that the issues are not, as politicians often maintain, one-dimensional.
Feeding people and maintaining biodiversity have to go hand in glove with managing climate change.
“We have looked at different models,” he said.
“In the most extreme, we would become greenhouse or vertical farmers, GM crops and energy crops would be common, and although there would be some livestock farming it would be mostly pigs and poultry.
“That would free up land for tree planting of say 30,000 to 40,000 hectares annually across the UK.
“It would still be possible to maintain some wilderness and the whole system could reduce agricultural emissions by 50 per cent.
“It might involve a 50 per cent reduction in red meat and dairy, but lift agricultural output by 20- 40 per cent.”
At the other extreme, bodies such as the World Wildlife Fund have proposed very low intensity farming.
The most realistic prospect, believes Mr Miller, is to take the more pragmatic view of Irish researchers as a first step.
This involves upgrading the present system of farming using a menu of options.
For example, restricting ammonium nitrate applications and using more clovers in pasture could together reduce carbon emissions by 500,000 tonnes a year in Ireland.
Wetting areas of high organic soil could contribute further, as could better slurry storage.
Using dairy and beef genetics could provide another 500,000t reduction and allow for some forestry planting.
“It is a case of tuning the present system, but it could mean reaching a target of 30 per cent reduction in emissions by as soon as 2035,” he said.
“Agricultural emissions in Scotland, critically, do not take account of sequestration in soils and crops.
“Wet land and peat are put into a different silo and not captured in international figures. This is not right.”
Mr Miller’s view is that if agriculture is to be part of the climate change solution, farmers have to be encouraged and not criticised.
For example, there has to be an acceptance that methane has a half-life of eight to 10 years, rather than permanently accumulating in the atmosphere.
“Step changes are possible and feeding and genetics will have role to play,” he said.
“In the cropping sector, use of green cover and new crops such as a nitrogen fixing ryegrass could be important.
“But these changes will cost a lot and the idea of paying public money for public good will need to be
expanded if the targets set for 2045 are to be met.
“There will have to be a wake-up call. Food production has to be competitive, but consumers may have to pay more to meet extra costs.
“But everyone, farmers included, have to realise that climate change is a given.”
The ‘Farming for 1.5 degrees’ group met for the first time in Edinburgh in June and will report by October 2020.
It is an independent group formed at the instigation of Nourish Scotland, a food policy charity. The inquiry is supported by NFU Scotland.
It is co-chaired by Mike Robinson, chief executive of the Royal Geographical Society of Scotland, and Nigel Miller.
The 10-strong panel includes Andrew Barbour (farmer and forester), Deborah Long (Environment Link), Prof David Reay (Edinburgh University), Russell Brown (farmer), John Smith (farmer), Steven Thomson (SRUC), Philip Sleigh (farmer), Prof Geoff Simm (Edinburgh University) and Prof Sarah Skerrat (SRUC).
Its final report will propose agreed targets for reducing net greenhouse gas emissions from Scotland’s agriculture and related land use while continuing to produce high quality food and will identify the specific measures needed to achieve these targets.