Any debate on climate change should start from a basic fact. Even without agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions are being created by natural processes. If nature cannot reduce emissions to zero, neither can we.
The challenge is to feed a burgeoning global population. So we need to look at ways to efficiently produce food, while being mindful of the need to minimise greenhouse gas emissions.
The issues involved are complex. No one organisation, nor even one link in the food chain can work alone. That is why the Agricultural Industries Confederation, the Country Landowners and Business Association and the NFU have come together to form the joint Climate Change Task Force.
During 2007, the Task Force consulted widely to understand the issues and how the UK agricultural industry could address the challenges that climate change poses.
The partners were certain that there are “substantial economic, social and environmental benefits in taking action now in anticipation of climate change”.
It would be easy to do nothing. UK agriculture produces about 7% of the UK’s emissions, compared to a global average of 10-12%. But that would be to abdicate our responsibility to future generations. An alternative view could be to reduce UK production, but that would just export the problems.
Science and technology offer ways forward through improving ruminant nutrition so that methane production is reduced and animal production efficiency increased. Effective manure management, particularly through anaerobic digestion, is seen by the Task Force as “the most promising mitigation option”.
Nitrous oxide formation is encouraged by every process that returns or adds nitrate or ammonium to soil. It can result from natural processes such as the decomposition of plant material, or from the application of manures or fertiliser. The GrowHow EnCompass programme, recognised by the Environment Agency, will provide farmers with an efficient nutrient management tool to take account of these factors.
Reducing nitrous oxide from agriculture comes from joined-up practice. For instance, taking full account of the nitrogen content of manures applied to arable land, then adjusting fertiliser rates accordingly. Where fertiliser alone is used, the risk of excess emissions can be reduced by taking account of the nutrient status of the soil. Using the GrowHow N-Min and N-Calculator service will provide additional analytical precision to this key area.
The Task Force recognised the difficulty of predicting outcomes, but improvements in livestock and crop nutrition could mitigate emissions by up to 20%.
For the fertiliser sector, there are particular challenges. Manufacturing fertiliser involves high energy use and certain greenhouse gases are inevitable as part of the manufacturing process. The industry is investing heavily to improve its efficiency both to reduce emissions, and to improve usage of expensive energy sources.
Rising raw materials costs have led to higher prices of fertilisers. While it may hurt the pocket, it could well help in the battle of climate change. At higher prices, farmers are likely to pay more attention to fertiliser use, while improved returns to the manufacturing sector will help fund the major investments needed to address emissions and improved efficiency.
Learn more about fertiliser’s role in climate change on David Stacey’s video at www.fwi.co.uk/climatechangevideo
Top ten climate change websites
- Advice, support and ideas from an alliance including DEFRA, the AHDB,the NFU, CLA and AIC
- The latest from DEFRA
- The website of the newly created Department of Energy and Climate Change
- The UK Climate Impacts Programme’s website contains the latest research on climate change
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and how it’s tackling climate change
- Research and advice from the world-leading Hadley Centre
- The University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit
- Environment Agency advice
- Reducing your carbon footprint
- Action being taken by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation