*BLOG* Andy Guy - Net Zero; what are farmers doing already?
Amid all the talk of Climate Change and the contribution of farming in the emission of Greenhouse Gasses (GHG) there are some important things to consider. Clearly, British farmers, like our colleagues around the globe and every single citizen on the planet, are contributing to the problem but, unlike almost every other industry in the world, farmers have the capacity, on farm, to absorb carbon dioxide too. Agriculture is estimated to be responsible for around 10% of emissions in the UK which is about 2/3 of the amount from Residential Properties and about 1/3 of the figure for Transport (Based on data from 2017). In the last three decades the GHG emissions from UK farming have fallen by 16% and, while this is a positive story, there is more work to be done.
The fact is that most farmers are already actively reducing their carbon footprints and increasing the amount of carbon stored on their farms, in many cases, without even thinking about it in that way.
There are three strategies which British farmers are adopting that have the effect of reducing the climate changing impact of their businesses.
- Boosting productivity which reduces the GHG/unit of output.
One example of this lies in the much-maligned dairy sector where the average milk yield has risen from 6346 litres/year to 8144 litres/year in 2019 (According to AHDB). That represents an increase of output of 28.3% which, in turn, suggests a corresponding reduction in the impact of each litre produced.
- Farmland Carbon Storage which is one part of the equation where farming has a unique advantage over most other industries.
Carbon is locked up in the organic matter on our farms. Every tree, plant, wooden fence post and gate is made of the stuff. The greatest amount of carbon trapped on farms is hidden in the soil where it is quietly assisting the farmer by improving the drainage, reducing compaction, feeding biodiversity and making the soil easier to work
For years, farmers have been planting and repairing their hedgerows and every 100m of hedgerow can trap 0.12 tonnes of carbon every year and with around 800,000 kms of hedges in the UK that’s a lot of carbon.
Recent Stewardship schemes have encouraged farmers to trim hedges less frequently which has also been a hidden contributor to the trapping of GHGs on farms. By increasing the height of a farm hedge from 1.5m (5ft) to 2.7m (9ft) the amount of carbon trapped in the plants rises by a factor of three.
Many farmers have changed the way that they establish their crops and have begun to use techniques which disturb the soil less. These systems of tillage are not suited to all farms or crops but sales of direct drills and shallow cultivation equipment have been on the rise in recent years. The new techniques provide the farmer with two ways to reduce the carbon footprint of their business. By reducing the amount of times that the tractor travels across the land the farm requires less diesel and every litre that is not required represents a saving of 2.62 Kgs of CO2. The other part of the story is happening underground where the carbon is trapped in the form of humus, organic matter and living things. Disturbing the soil brings these to the surface where they are at risk of decomposing quickly and releasing the carbon that makes up the structure of these things. In the meantime, the farmer is adding to the organic matter in the land as the roots of the crops reach down into the soil to find moisture and plant nutrients. So, by adopting different farming techniques, farmers are already reducing the fossil fuels they burn and, at the same time, preserving and adding more carbon to the soil.
- Renewable energy generation and consumption means that farmers are becoming less reliant on fossil fuels.
Around 40% of British farmers have installed some form of renewable energy generation on their farms. That includes everything from small solar PV arrays on the roof of the farmhouse to large scale solar farms, anaerobic digesters and wind turbines. In fact, these farmers are generating far more than they can consume so the surplus is fed into the National Grid and it represents enough energy to power ten million homes.
Most farmers are changing the way that they farm because it makes sound financial sense and that is just good business practice, especially when the economics of farming are under pressure. The great story here is that, while they buy less fuel, produce more food, generate energy and tweak the way that they manage their hedges, along with hundreds of other positive things they do to improve their businesses, they are reducing the impact they have on the environment – protecting planet Earth.
The population cannot survive without its food and that makes the farming industry essential. It is also probably the only industry that has the potential to reach Zero carbon emissions and maybe even become carbon negative in some cases.
About Andy Guy
LEAF Open Farm Sunday Ambassador
Andy Guy ran his own LEAF Demonstration Farm between 2004 and 2010 and hosted hundreds of visits during those years, participating in Open Farm Sunday as a host until 2010 when he ceased farming. Andy now runs an independent sustainable food & farming consultancy business and has been heavily involved in LEAF Open Farm Sunday since 2010.
Tel: 07738 121883
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