Q&A Natural England: Farming and fighting climate change

Farmers Weekly speaks to Natural England chairman Tony Juniper about his vision for a more sustainable countryside.

We find out how he sees farming fitting in to policies on climate change and land use.

See also: Towards Net Zero: How to reduce emissions and store carbon

How do we engage more farmers in the fight against climate change?

I think many in the farming community are becoming more aware of the big challenges we all face – of nature decline, biodiversity loss and the climate change issue.

And, of course, national bodies like the NFU are very much bringing the farmers’ voice to the fore on all of this.

The NFU has set some really ambitious targets, including the idea of being net zero by 2040 across agriculture.

This is something, then, that is really getting a lot of profile and attention – as it is across the whole of society.

The big issues really are about what we do about climate change, and how we make progress in moving forward.

There are lots of answers to that. Some of it is about policy and the way in which government will incentivise and encourage people to go in the right direction.

Some of it, though, is about business opportunities and the extent to which there are some new ways of creating businesses based upon this transition.

And then part of it is around building partnerships and how we can work together – between suppliers and producers and between the public and people who provide their food to be able to create those new conditions.

So it’s multi-layered, but I think these questions are important for everybody in the agricultural sector because they are important questions for everyone.

You’ve mentioned the NFU’s ambition for farming to be net zero by 2040. Is that enough for UK agriculture, or does farming need to be better than that?

Well, better than net zero and being carbon-negative would be good – and in some cases that will be possible.

But every country across the entire world now needs to go on this journey, and taking responsibility for what we can do here is a really important part of the picture.

But, of course, what we don’t want to be doing is importing massive greenhouse gas emissions from outside of the UK.

So we do need to be simultaneously thinking about our global footprint and how we can be working with countries who are supplying us from outside.

Some of the figures recently coming from Brazil, showing the scale of deforestation in the Amazon with vast greenhouse gas emissions linked with that [are huge].

So displacing our footprint from here to there really wouldn’t be a sensible thing to do.

We need to be thinking about the global picture as well as the national picture. But it is clear that the more we can do here to show leadership and take control of our own opportunities, the more that is going to shape the view of others.

You’ve called for a national land use strategy. What do you mean by that?

Well, it is becoming more evident – and has been evident for some time – that in a small country like ours, there are many stresses and strains on the limited amount of land we have.

England alone is home to 55 million people.

So we have a relatively small amount of land compared with some countries – and that land needs to feed us, we need room for housing, for infrastructure, for industry and businesses, and we need to extract natural resources and grow natural resources like wood.

We also need to catch carbon from the atmosphere to look after and increase our biodiversity and provide beautiful places for people to enjoy and have recreation.

And, of course, we need to accommodate industries like tourism, too.

So how do we do all of that in a place which is constrained for space? In the end it comes down to having a strategy that optimises everything so we don’t just finish up having these endless binary discussions about what land is for.

You know, should we have wild land or food production? Should we have housing or greenbelt? Should we have beautiful landscapes or wind turbines?

The reality is that we need all of it. And the question is, how do we fit it all in?

The answer is that it requires some integrated thinking across different government departments, across different sectors and industries.

Eminently, I think it is doable, but does require an element of planning and an overarching strategy.

Hopefully, that will come as we go forward. We’ve got new planning legislation coming later this year and, hopefully, it will take some steps in this direction.

Do government ministers listen when you suggest this kind of thing?

Ministers do listen. We have been having good conversations between departments about some of the ambitions we have for local nature recovery strategies coming through the Environment Bill, with measures that will come later through the Planning Bill.

Can we really make these two things compatible? Well, certainly that would seem to be the case.

And if we try to do that, then I think we’ll get more beneficial outcomes than having these things running in parallel without an integrated approach.

Recent weeks have seen the opening of applications for the Landscape Recovery element of the Environmental Land Management scheme. It seems aimed at larger landowners. Is there a role for smaller family farms?

At Natural England, we hope that it will unlock opportunities for groups of landowners, farmers and smallholders who want to come together and making applications jointly – not just people with very substantial landholdings.

That is definitely one of the opportunities Defra envisages for the scheme – and, hopefully, we will see more of that.

We have already seen clusters of farmers working together, and we hope to take that to the next stage by bringing people together to make the most of that idea.

It has been suggested that Landscape Recovery is about creating nature reserves rather than sustainable farming. How would you respond to that?

There is a spectrum across these different schemes The Sustainable Farming Incentive will support agriculture to achieve greener outcomes.

Then there will be the Local Nature Recovery scheme, which will be akin in some ways to what we do now with Countryside Stewardship.

And then there is this newer approach – Landscape Recovery – which is about changing land use to embrace nature recovery at larger scale. It is about restoring natural processes at the scale of landscapes.

Now, whether that turns into something that completely removes food production remains to be seen in terms of the individual projects that come through.

But I would have thought that extensive grazing will be integral to a lot of these schemes, which means food production will still be part of the income stream as well as being part of the ecological management.

It’s not necessarily a case of removing agriculture completely.

Some high-quality livestock products coming from some of these schemes would be one way to create a rounded business – a businesses that doesn’t just rely on ecological payments but also produces food.

So there is still a role for agriculture in livestock and red meat production?

Yes. Conservation grazing. As we look at the opportunities we have for bringing nature recovery to reality, the role of big herbivores – grazing animals – is absolutely central.

Can you align nature recovery with meat production? I would think very much that you can.

About Tony Juniper

Tony Juniper was appointed Natural England chairman in 2019. A sustainability adviser and environmentalist, he was previously executive director of Friends of the Earth.

He is a fellow of the Institute for Sustainability Leadership at Cambridge University and was made a CBE for services to conservation in 2017.

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