Agriculture has to take the initiative on climate change and devise its own greenhouse gas strategy without jeopardising yields and profits, or risk facing much more outside regulation, according to Norfolk arable farmer Ed Buscall.
"Our quest for greater profits could be undermined by new regulation unless the industry develops its own strategy," he warned delegates at the Norfolk Farming Conference.
The decision to embrace all things green by the Conservative Party had created a profound change in the British political climate, he said. "It is no surprise the government has been quick to play catch up. Its draft climate change bill is promising to make the UK the first country in the world to make legally binding targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions."
Farming had jumped on the bandwagon, promoting biofuels, he said. "But it has been reluctant - until recently - to embrace the less business friendly end of this green revolution - how to tackle the scale of agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions."
An NFU / CLA report in December belatedly acknowledged the role farming could play, he noted. "But I fear the industry has already lost the initiative on this issue, with potentially damaging implications."
That was because Britain's leading companies, especially supermarkets, were committed to green initiatives, he said. It cost Boots £250,000 to add carbon labels on two of its shampoos, he said. "If that is the cost for two labels, the bill for Tesco to fulfil its promise of labelling on all 70,000 products would be well over £8bn.
"The question is: Will the supermarket be picking up the entire bill or will it be passing on part of that cost to its suppliers? Shall we ask any milk producers in the room?
"The farming industry potentially faces a pincer movement of new political and commercial regulation, unless it takes the initiative and develops its own emissions strategy. As a result I believe it is vital for arable farming to be more proactive in finding solutions for mitigating climate change."
Mr Buscall undertook a Nuffield Scholarship to find some solutions. First stop was Australia, where prolonged drought had brought a sea change in thinking on climate change. Politicians were rushing to react in an election year, which had forced farming groups to develop a strategic position to deal with a new era of environmental legislation, he said.
"Their early assessments make sense. First, establish a system to measure emissions that will win consensus across the industry, then develop your own best management practice standards that reduce net greenhouse gas emissions so the industry is in charge of regulation."
An example was the Australian rice industry's Environmental Champions Programme, which had five levels from basic greenhouse and irrigation issues up to showing how farmers could benefit financially from trading in carbon markets.
"Crucial to its success is that it is so user-friendly," he said. "At present no such simple measuring tool is available here."
The industry had to develop a simple calculator by agreeing on emissions beforehand. "Once these benchmarks are established the industry can show its intent by initiating different levels of management standards to tackle emissions, from a basic encouraging energy efficiency in farm buildings, to an expectation of the use of alternative energy sources, green crop covers and minimum tillage."
And there is no reason why these carbon management measures could not be part of the Entry Level scheme, he suggested.
Any best management scheme would have to review fertiliser use, he noted. "The potency of nitrous oxide as a greenhouse gas is a problem for farmers. Three hundred times worse than carbon dioxide gives any government room to justify a fertiliser tax. At the same time they are essential to feed a world increasingly short of food."
About 1.25% of applied nitrogen was estimated to be released from soils as nitrous oxide, but research suggested that could be reduced by 20% by managing growth differently.
Plant breeders could also help by researching varieties that thrived with relatively modest levels of fertiliser, he said.
"But most important of all, if the industry actively undertakes a review of fertiliser and lobbies for financial help in introducing a scheme that has a clear environmental benefit, then it puts it in a much stronger position to lobby against further outside regulation and government interference."
- Climate change bill: http://www.dft.gov.uk/ActOnCO2/
- Tesco greener living: http://www.tesco.com/greenerliving/what_we_are_doing/default.page?
- Rice Environmental Champion Programme: http://www.rga.org.au/environment/champions.asp