The government’s sustainable future is possible — but it needs more detailed thinking when it comes to agriculture

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There’s no doubt that the UK government’s commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 is a hugely important step in tackling climate change.

But scratch the surface of the target, and there lies some big questions — particularly for agriculture.

Announced in June, the commitment came hot on the heels of a report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) which identified agriculture as a focus area for driving down the UK’s environmental footprint.

Few would argue with the overall goals, and there is still lots of work the industry has to do to become more sustainable.

However the report’s simplistic understanding of farming left some of us in the sector scratching our heads.

Too top line in its thinking, many of the report’s recommendations felt out-of-date, and failed to recognise the work that many in the sector are already doing.

In its current form, the report feels like a missed opportunity — not just for the farming sector, but the country as a whole.

Here we’ve identified five areas that need more consideration if we’re to really recognise food production’s true impact on the environment, and understand where we need policy to help drive improvements.

1. Breeding measures

The CCC’s report into reducing greenhouse gas emissions suggests that livestock breeding measures could help reduce agricultural emissions.

This is true, but it significantly underestimates the measures livestock farmers are already doing to utilise improved genetic solutions which improve production, and require collaboration across the supply chain.

The report suggests that only 25% of dairy herds are utilising breeding goals to improve genetic merit, but we’re unsure where that figure comes from.

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The UK dairy sector has embraced breeding measures to improve cow productivity and longevity.

For years, dairy farmers have been making selections by using the Profitable Lifetime Index (PLI) to produce animals that live longer, are more productive over their lifetimes, and therefore produce lower emissions.

With efforts continuing to focus on improving cow longevity, PLI offers the potential to drive efficiencies further thanks to reduced replacements, thereby reducing emissions.

The industry is also making big strides in calving replacement heifers younger, which will again aid efficiencies and the industry’s carbon footprint.

2. Utilising genomics

The CCC’s report assumes that very few — if any — livestock producers are using genomics to identify and rear the most efficient herds. This simply isn’t the case.

In the last three years alone, the focus of breeding businesses like Genus, of which Promar is the consulting divison, has changed dramatically.

Genetic companies like Genus are doing huge amounts of work to understand how they can drive down emissions through genetic improvement, creating more feed-efficient animals and working across the supply chain to maximise the potential of genomics.

By using a combination of sexed and beef semen, producers can breed from the best females and put the rest to beef, thus driving efficiencies and creating more sustainable systems.

3. Fossil fuel focus

The report suggests that tractors and other field vehicles are still dependent on fossil fuels, but there are an increasing number of low-carbon alternatives available.

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Alternative technologies for spraying crops and controlling weeds will undoubtedly become the norm.

As the report did point out, smaller, battery-powered robots are being designed for weed control and drilling, such as those by the Small Robot Company. These will undoubtedly become commonplace as the technology develops.

The development of one-pass technology and direct drilling also reduces fuel use, as well as limits soil compaction and disturbance, which helps retain carbon in the soils.

It’s important, however, to remember that fuel-use equates to just 2–3% of a farm’s total carbon footprint.

4. Recognising renewables

There’s no doubt that energy is critical for many farming systems, particularly in the arable sector where crops need to be dried and properly stored.

However, the report fails to reference the wide adoptions of biomass boilers, introduced thanks to the Renewable Heat Incentive, that many farmers use to generate electricity for this task. In many cases, this energy has offset requirements for fossil fuels.

Another important question is how we can drive a more sustainable energy policy when the only alternatives really being mentioned are nuclear and fracking.

The UK has found itself in a place where we think that only one solution can deliver the results that we need to limit emissions, which isn’t a sustainable approach.

5. Cutting waste

Everyone in the food supply chain should be looking to reduce waste as part of their efforts to mitigate climate change, and there are countless benefits to be had from working collaboratively.

One important example, which the report fails to point out, is the important role farms can play in reducing food waste.

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Unused potatoes and other food waste can be used to feed livestock

Co-products such as brewers’ grains, vegetables and potatoes often end up being fed to livestock, which are then converted into higher-value meat and milk.

When the true environmental impact of agriculture is being calculated, it’s vital the factors like this are included in any emissions modelling.

No room for singular improvements

There’s no doubt the CCC’s report raises some important questions, but if government is really going get to the heart of the climate change conundrum it’s vital a more collaborative approach is taken.

That doesn’t just mean engaging more with the farming industry — although farmers and those across the sector would have undoubtedly welcomed the chance to give their thoughts and detail the improvements they are already making. What it really means is engaging across all industries, and not just identifying one or two as the major culprits.

Improvements are happening in agriculture and they need to continue to be made on a larger scale, but ultimately this isn’t just a challenge for farmers.

All sectors of every industry have to fundamentally change to drive down emissions, and that’s what practical policies need to focus on.

  • For more information or technical advice, contact Tom Gill, head of Sustainability, Promar by emailing Thomas.Gill@genusplc.com

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