The food and farming sector is recognised as a major contributor to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about 19% of our total emissions, with 40% of those originating from agriculture.
With the UK Government having set a legally binding target to reduce emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050, as set out in the Climate Change Act passed by Parliament in 2008, there is growing pressure on the sector to make significant reductions in its emissions.
Those targets may be accelerated in light of the UN Paris Agreement, signed in 2015 by the UK, to pursue efforts to limit global warming to 1.5degC.
The UK Government asked its climate advisers in October 2018 for advice on setting a date for achieving net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from across the economy, including transport, industry and farming.
A net zero target would mean that GHG emissions (methane from livestock and carbon dioxide emissions from the running of the farm) were reduced to zero, unless they could be compensated for by new efforts to absorb emissions through, for example, planting new forests to absorb emissions.
In January 2019, the NFU preempted any possible political decision on this issue by setting out its own aspiration for UK farming to become net zero in its greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 at the latest.
NFU president Minette Batters says it is ‘ambitious’, but insisted the target is compatible with continuing to produce food in the UK.
Roddy McLean, director of agriculture at NatWest, says: “There is a lot of discussion outside of the farming community about how big a climate impact agriculture and livestock in particular has.
“If you look at the efficiency gains that can, and already are, being made by investment on-farm, as well as in renewables, you get a much different impression of the farming sector.”
Undoubtedly, the sector which faces the biggest challenge from future targets for reducing climate emissions is livestock, which is responsible for most of farming’s emissions.
There are more than two million cattle and 14m sheep slaughtered annually in the UK, supplying more than 1m tonnes of meat to the human food chain, with a farmgate value of more than £3 billion.
However, while livestock farming is responsible for 5 per cent in total of the UK’s emissions, that figure is lower than the EU average (about 9 per cent) due to our more efficient production systems.
Steady improvements in production efficiency have taken place over the recent years, with 5 per cent fewer prime cattle required to produce each tonne of meat in 2008 than in 1998, according to AHDB Beef and Lamb.
AHDB says there is still huge potential for livestock farms to reduce greenhouse emissions through the use of better quality feed, improved breeding and animal health to reduce unproductive cattle.
The genetic potential for progress in beef and sheep breeds for improvements in feed efficiency is largely undeveloped, says AHDB, but modern breeding techniques will allow rapid progress.
AHDB strategy director for beef and lamb Will Jackson says: “We see our role [at AHDB] in helping farmers identify where they as individuals can improve and reduce their environmental footprint.
“We want to give people the tools to do that. We can drive towards lower impact from an environmental point of view.”
Mr Jackson says it is also important to bring balance to the debate about the role of meat in our diet, as well as its environmental impact.
Meat is eaten by almost 98 per cent of people in the UK, according to AHDB, and a valuable source of protein, iron, zinc, B vitamins, Vitamin D, selenium and iodine.
AHDB set up the Meat Advisory Panel, a group of independent scientists and health professionals, to advise on the role of red meat in a healthy diet.
It says a blanket ‘eat less red meat’ message to everyone is inappropriate and can have the unintended consequence of negatively impacting on the iron status of women and girls with low iron intake; already a problem in up to 40 per cent of females.
As well as an important source of nutrients, ruminants also play a role in managing our landscape and helping store carbon in the soil, thereby limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
About 60 per cent of agricultural land in the UK is made up of grassland with few alternative uses to livestock farming, with ruminants the only species able to transform grass into human edible food.
For Russ Carrington, from the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA), making use of the UK’s natural ability to grow grass is an effective way to limit climate emissions.
He says: “Some argue that fattening animals quicker with cereals is more efficient, but if there has been high energy and feed input to achieve this, then it does not stack up when you consider the whole lifecycle analysis.
“It is not just feed in and feed out, which is why we advocate a pasture-fed system, which uses sunlight, natural resources and very little inputs.”
The PFLA is in the process of developing a paper pulling together the relevant science which shows how red meat produced on a pasture- only diet (as per the Pasture for Life certification standards) has a lower impact than meat produced using cereals.
As well reducing emissions from production, the farming sector has been making a contribution to reducing the climate impacts of its energy use with an enormous uptake in renewables.
Between 2014 and 2017, the installation of renewable energy on-farm by NFU members grew from more than one-quarter of farmers and growers to almost two-fifths (39 per cent). The most popular is solar PV, installed by nearly one-third of NFU members.
Dr Jonathan Scurlock, NFU’s chief adviser on renewable energy and climate change, says: “Farm businesses are seeing the benefits of contributing to the decarbonising of the economy and diversifying their income streams through renewable energy production.”
The rising numbers of electric cars and, in the future, tractors, could also create future opportunities for farmers to host battery charging stations, powered by on-farm renewables.
Mr McLean says: “Opportunities are there for agriculture to tell a much better story about what it can do to mitigate its climate impact for the benefit of society.”