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by Tom Freeman
22 June 2019
Finding solutions: farming and climate change

Cows - Image credit: PA Images

Finding solutions: farming and climate change

Because it both contributes to and is impacted by climate change, agriculture is at the sharp end of what the Scottish Government has called a climate emergency.

Featuring prominently in the UN’s global warming warnings, the complex and increasingly globalised system of food production and delivery was seen as a major area in need of reform.

While much has been made of warnings on energy consumption and transport emissions in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report, diet is a huge factor too.

In fact, the livestock industry is estimated to be responsible for 14.5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, more than direct emissions from transport.

And 68 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock.

The global demand for food is expected to grow by up to 70 per cent in the coming decades, the next 11 years representing the remaining time before the global temperature rise becomes irreversible.

But in the report there was also a recognition of the impact climate change is already having on growing seasons, flooding and productivity.

Extreme weather contributed to losses of up to £161m for Scotland’s farmers during 2017 and 2018, according to a recent study for WWF Scotland.

The biggest impact was on the sheep sector, followed by wheat, which saw a loss of £34m, beef, at £28m, and barley, which was hit by £26m.

Overall losses were equivalent to six per cent of total output in 2017.

Dr Sheila George, Food Policy Manager at WWF Scotland, said: “Farmers are increasingly on the frontline of climate change, struggling with ever more unpredictable seasons and extreme weather.

“This report gives a snapshot of the huge financial toll, but behind these stats there is also a personal cost for farmers across the country.

“This year the mild winter boosted crop growth, but the variability is already a huge challenge – and climate change is going to lead to more frequent, extreme and unpredictable weather events, like we saw across 2017 and 2018.

“Last year’s extremes will soon be the norm, rather than the exception and that will have huge implications for farmers and the environment.

“That’s why it’s so important the Scottish Government takes action now to support our agriculture sector to adapt to the challenges ahead.”

The Scottish Government has recognised that it will have to work closely with the sector to reduce emissions and support farmers.

Speaking before a recent conference on sustainable farming, rural affairs minister Mairi Gougeon said: “For a relatively small country, Scotland’s efforts to tackle climate change, support farmers, and ensure the highest standards of animal welfare mean that we should be leading the way internationally in ethical and sustainable farming.

“I know that there is already a lot of enthusiasm for this amongst Scotland’s farmers but I would encourage everyone working within the industry to embrace taking a more future-focused approach to their work to ensure that we continue to produce an abundance of food and drink in an increasingly unpredictable global climate.”

Speaking at the NFU fringe at SNP conference, WWF’s George said: “We’re already feeling the impacts of climate change in Scotland and farmers will continue to be at the frontline when facing this challenge.

“Scottish agriculture can play a huge role in the fight against climate change, while building resilience, profitability and supporting food production, but it needs support to do so. 

“This means an open dialogue, a focus on finding solutions, and new rural policy that encourages innovation, efficiency and sustainability. 

“We must act urgently, ambitiously and together to rise to the climate challenge.”

Of course, farmers will argue they are already focused on future-proofing their businesses.

In its submission of evidence to the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Bill, the National Farmers Union (NFU) in Scotland said farmers and crofters would need to be supported so that Scotland wouldn’t be “exporting our emissions by relying on food exports”.

But the focus has since shifted from a 90 per cent reduction in emissions to a ‘net-zero’ target, as advised by the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

In evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, CCC chief Chris Stark said: “It is obvious that we must start planting trees, which means changing our approach to agriculture.

“We have been cautious about what needs to be done, but we must free up agricultural land for natural stores of carbon, which takes time.”

However, he stressed the agriculture sector should not be portrayed as “the enemy”.

“There are real emissions from agriculture, some of which are perfectly manageable, and if that community is engaged properly it can be a real part of the solution to getting us to the deep emissions reductions that are necessary for net zero,” he said.

“The agricultural community should expect to be recompensed for that, but we will need to broaden the set of incentives that are provided for agriculture beyond food production to achieve that.”

The CCC modelled a 20 per cent reduction in consumption in meat and dairy across the UK, but Stark told MSPs this was a “conservative” estimate, when public health guidance already suggests people should make a much bigger cut in the products from their diet.

In a blog for the NFU’s website in March, the union’s environment and land use policy manager Andrew Midgley conceded the pressure was on farmers, in what could be an “existential” issue for the sector.

However, farmers and crofters were receiving “scant credit” for the role they are already playing in reducing emissions, he added.

Current targets don’t reflect the complexity of farming in Scotland, argued Midgley, when emissions from things like livestock are counted as agricultural but efforts to increase small woodlands and use micro renewable energy projects are counted elsewhere.

“There are lots of things that can be done in farming, but in order to move positively in that direction we need to avoid a polarisation of views with different interests working against one another,” he said.

“And we need to start from where the farming industry is today.

“Whilst there are lots that can be done to reduce emissions, much of what can be done will entail investment to change practice in order to enhance the delivery of public goods.

“So farming is part of the solution and we need all parties to recognise that farmers and crofters are already playing a part in the bigger picture.

“And we need to avoid inflicting damaging change on the industry so that farming is retained in areas where it delivers all sorts of other benefits.”

Indeed, some farmers are going further, as evidenced at the recent international ethical farming conference in southern Scotland, which explored sustainable, regenerative and ecological farming.

David Finlay of host venue Rainton Farm, the largest cow with calf dairy farm in Europe, said: “We know that we’re a pain in the ass to those in the industry pushing an intensification agenda.

“We get it. But the market is changing faster than policy can respond. 

“Contrary to powerful, vested interests who are currently demonising all beef and dairy, grass-based beef and dairy can deliver good health and positive environmental outcomes.”

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