Farmers can be climate change champions
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Climate change, and the mitigation of its effects, is now firmly established as the holy grail of emerging agricultural policy.
It will be a major focus in Scotland as Glasgow hosts the two-week United Nations climate change conference, COP 26, from November 1-12, which is set to attract thousands of experts and activists from all over the world, including heads of government.
The conference is held every five years (it was postponed last year because of Covid) and will monitor the progress of the game-changing 2016 Paris Agreement, an international legally-binding treaty signed up to by 196 countries to keep the world’s temperature from rising by less than 2C and ideally below 1.5C.
One of President Trump’s more crass moves during his presidency was to take the USA out of the treaty but his successor, President Biden, intends to restore America’s commitment to the treaty.
Scotland’s contribution to climate change may be infinitesimal in the overall scheme of things but the Scottish government is rightly determined that Scotland should play its part. The aim is a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 35 per cent to achieve net zero by 2045. The UK government has set a similar target for 2050.
Most emissions since the 2008 and 2009 Climate Acts have been down to the energy sector of industry but agriculture is the third highest industry sector in Scotland in terms of emissions, largely attributable to the livestock sector, despite the impressive reductions the sector has achieved over the past 20 years.
However, as former NFU Scotland president, Nigel Miller, who co-chairs the independent Farming for 1.5C inquiry, established by NFU Scotland and Nourish Scotland, says the method of measuring livestock emissions needs to be changed to take proper account of the role of grazing in carbon sequestration.
The good news for farmers is that the two objectives of meeting climate change targets and continuing to carry out what most farmers consider to be their primary role, food production, are not mutually exclusive.
It is certainly not a case of getting rid of livestock, turning to vegetarianism and rewilding the whole of Scotland.
The report from the 1.5C inquiry pointed to many areas where action could be taken to reduce emissions without undermining crop and livestock production although Mr Miller made the point in an NFU Scotland webinar that an over-emphasis on forestry could result in the loss of all of Scotland’s permanent grassland. He would like to see a greater emphasis on agri-forestry.
In their interim report, the inquiry has evaluated 37 measures to reduce emissions, including reduced nitrogen fertiliser use, greater use of organic manure, improved soil management and alternative cropping systems.
But the major focus needs to be on livestock, especially beef and dairy, and it’s encouraging to know that efforts to reduce emissions are often consistent with improving efficiency, particularly when it comes to animal health, nutrition, genetics and grassland management.
Nitrogen usage could be reduced by the use of legumes in grassland and the adoption of rotational grazing techniques on diverse-species grassland, including white clover, to build organic matter and sequester carbon. Feed additives could also be used to reduce methane emissions.
Improved animal health and breeding, resulting in increased fertility, growth rates and yields, and reduced mortality, could reduce the total number of livestock required to deliver the same output.
“Improved productivity associated with improved animal health and breeding could create a win-win situation for farmers, with emissions reduction combined with financial benefits,” said Mr Miller, who is a vet as well as livestock farmer. “The aim must be to produce high quality, low carbon beef.”
He admitted some recommendations would mean increased costs and were unlikely to be driven by market forces. Policy support will be required to encourage farmers to adopt innovative approaches.
Mr Miller’s co-chair, Mike Robinson, chief executive of the Royal Geographical Society of Scotland, said farmers can be viewed as climate change champions rather than victims.
“Agriculture has a huge and vital role to play in helping the whole of society achieve net zero,” he said. “It can’t happen without farmers and landowners getting on board. This is even more true in Scotland due to the importance of agriculture.”