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*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

    Email: [email protected]​andyguyconsulting.​co.​uk

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