A new report, Farming For Climate Action: What are we waiting for? from the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) – a farmer-led initiative – sets out eight areas for action on farm that can contribute to a “nature rich, net zero future”.
According to the report, a whole-farm approach is critical when it comes to mitigating climate change and aiding nature recovery, and the time to start is now, rather than wait for new support schemes from government.
Launching the report at the recent Oxford Real Farming Conference, NFFN chairman and Hertfordshire farmer Martin Lines said:
“We have become so embedded in a payment system that has rewarded land size, instead of what we do with that land,” he explains.
He believes that farmers have the ability to deliver solutions that are not only good for the environment and biodiversity, but also for the profitability of businesses.
How that might be done at a practical level is set out in the 25-page report, which first describes the targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction in different parts of the UK, and then goes on to assess the main sources of GHG emissions for each farming system.
England and Wales, for example, have committed to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Scotland is aiming for 2045, while Northern Ireland is still working it out.
The UK as a whole has also pledged a 16% reduction in ammonia emissions and a 30% reduction in methane by 2030.
When it comes to sources of GHG emissions, the report points a finger at the use of ammonium nitrate (AN) fertiliser in arable farming as the principal source of nitrous oxide – a potent GHG.
Methane from livestock is said to account for almost half of all agricultural emissions.
Overall, agriculture is believed to produce 11% of the UK’s total GHGs, making it the fourth-largest contributor after the energy, transport, and construction sectors.
Yet agriculture will be one of the sectors most heavily affected by climate change, with higher temperatures, extra rainfall and increased extreme weather events presenting enormous challenges.
The crux of the report, however, concerns what farmers can do to address the situation – improve on-farm habitats, reduce GHGs, and become more resilient.
“The impacts of climate change will be devastating if farmland does not build effective climate resilience to changing weather,” says the report.
On-farm habitats – from peatlands, woodlands and heathlands, to wetlands, saltmarsh and grasslands – can act as “nature-based solutions”, it suggests.
“Natural habitats both help to reduce GHGs and help farming businesses be more resilient and protected against the effects of climate change – from drought and flooding to wildfires and pests.”
Rewetting peatlands is seen as crucial to slow the emission of carbon dioxide, while the government’s tree planting ambitions (30,000ha/year by 2025), would capture an estimated 18.5m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (CO2e) annually.
Agroforestry, hedge-planting, low-input grasslands and sensitively managed field margins can also all play a part in carbon sequestration.
The NFFN believes it is pushing at an open door, with a recent poll for the Prince’s Countryside Fund finding that 81% of farmers want to do more for climate change.
And with more processors and retailers asking farmers to demonstrate their climate- and nature-friendly practices, the time to make changes is now, it says.
To help farmers on the way to “net zero”, the report has identified eight actions within three broad areas for attention:
1. Actions to directly cut emissions
- better fertiliser use
- crop management
- soil management
- livestock management
2. Ways to capture carbon
- habitat management,
- tree and hedgerow management
- water management
3. Taking a “whole farm approach” to management
- creating a whole farm plan
Each of these is considered in greater detail in the report, setting out specific actions and describing the benefits.
On fertiliser use, for example, it urges farmers to create a nutrient management plan to work out how to minimise use, to lock more nitrogen in soil by using appropriate catch and cover crops – especially legumes – and use more organic manures.
The benefits include making the business less vulnerable to market volatility, improving soil fertility, reducing the need for pesticides (as nitrogen can foster fungal disease and encourage weeds), improving biodiversity, and achieving cleaner air and water.
Under crop management, again, it recommends more catch and cover crops to reduce nitrate leaching and improve soil structure.
It also suggests spring rather than autumn cultivations, together with more diversified crop rotations.
Such actions may trigger payments under government support schemes, and reduce pest and disease outbreaks, says the report.
And when it comes to livestock management, the report recommends introducing more legumes and herbal leys, improving breeding and animal health to increase fertility and reduce morbidity, and changing feeding techniques to pasture-based feeding and home-grown proteins.
This will match consumer trends towards “less, but better” meat, it proposes, and improve profitability by reducing costs.
Helping farmers to act now
“We’re not suggesting these are the only actions that can be taken, and we’re not putting this forward as a major scientific study,” says report author Ellie Brodie of Brodie Consultancy.
“It’s a practical guide intended to help farmers act now.”
While it was clear many farmers were holding back due to uncertainty – “Defra statistics show that just 56% of farmers are currently taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their farms” – there were enough certainties to justify immediate action.
“We know that the climate is changing, we know that there are more extreme weather events, we know that there is government legislation and legally binding targets, we know that consumer preferences are changing, and we know that nature can help your farm business,” says Ms Brodie.
“I’d say take these certainties and act. If you’re at the start of the journey, a great place to start would be to make a plan – a whole farm plan, but also separate plans for nutrient management, soil management, maybe a carbon audit as well.
“See nature as an asset and look at what incentives are out there.”