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by Jack Thomson
18 February 2021
Reap what we sow: farmers need to be environmental champions

Reap what we sow: farmers need to be environmental champions

According to a key report published in late 2020, farmers find themselves at a crossroads in the fight against climate change. And their choice is stark. The industry can either follow one road, down which it becomes a victim or villain of the story, or another where it embraces its role as a champion of responsible action, creating an altogether different narrative for the sector.

The report, authored by Farming for 1.5C – an independent inquiry on farming and climate change in Scotland – maps out a 'transformation pathway' for agriculture. It considers how the industry can reduce its own emissions but also play a part in wider societal change and the country’s ambition of being net zero by 2045. 

In its summary, it says: "Without the engagement of the agricultural community, with its ability to absorb emissions and not just cut them, it will be impossible for Scotland to deliver against its targets.”

The farmers themselves are optimistic about change. In fact, they're used to it. David Smith, a farmer in Aberdeenshire whose main income is from beef cattle and malting barley, tells Holyrood: "We will adapt. We always have and we always will."

Smith's been in the game for a while, upwards of 50 years, and is passionate about renewable energy. "We’re trying to reduce emissions," he adds. "We’ve got our Land Rover on a hydrogen fuel cell... We did that about 10 years ago as a research project. We found it was quite efficient. It increased our miles to the gallon and reduced our emissions, so we’ve been pushing that quite hard."

Smith's day starts at 5.30am and doesn't finish for nearly 12 hours but he has the help of two full-time employees – “good lads,” he says – which allows him to be quite involved in the National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS), advising others on the benefits of clean technology.

The climate change question has only come to the forefront of the industry relatively recently, Smith says, and he believes farmers are doing what they can in challenging circumstances. 

"There was never any word on it at all [when I started out]. It was more in the last five to 10 years this has been raised and it’s a problem. There’s nothing really that dramatic we’re doing now, that we didn’t do before. We’re doing our best."

There are three main greenhouse gases produced in agriculture: carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. The latter two make up more than two-thirds of Scottish agriculture's total emissions, according to the Scottish Government, but emissions of both have fallen since 1990. The drop is down to a reduction in livestock numbers and a rise in the cost of fertilisers. 

While on the face of it decreasing emissions in the last three decades can be viewed as progress, an important caveat was provided by the Farming for 1.5C inquiry. "There has been a 16 per cent fall in agriculture sector emissions since 1990," the panel's report acknowledges. "But very little of this has been in the last decade and a much smaller reduction than most other sectors.

This has been due to the complexity of the science, a lack of concerted political leadership, marginal profitability in some sectors and little public or private financial targeting.”

That means there is still room for improvement and the inquiry has said methane emission needs to fall at least 30 per cent by 2045. "It’s something we’re very aware of," Smith says. "In most cattle diets, we’re including Rumitech. It helps the gut, improves the efficiency of the stomach. They do not emit as much methane as they would do without it." 

Nitrous oxide is considered a more significant challenge than methane because it has a much higher global warming potential. The use of fertiliser contributes to its emission but the solution according to Andrew McCornick, the outgoing NFUS president, is precision farming. "I think how we use and work with fertilisers and nitrogen has got to be done a lot smarter," he tells Holyrood. "We’re getting into precision farming. We’re getting to stages where we can actually put in what we need for the crop to grow and that’s it, nothing more, so there should be less waste. 

"It’s the timing of that and we need the science... There are so many opportunities there, but we need it backed up, we need it validated. I think the precision agriculture model will help to deliver on that one. I’m confident we can get there."

One of the Farming for 1.5C inquiry's panel members is Professor Geoff Simm, the director of the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security at the University of Edinburgh. The panel has been entrusted with finding consensus on a path to net zero for farming that still delivers a strong industry. However, Simm acknowledges it is no easy task. "Seeing farming as being right in the forefront of responding is critical," he tells Holyrood. "There aren’t many silver bullets. A lot of people naturally want to find the big solution to it, and I think probably one of the most challenging things is that I don’t think it’s one thing, it’s a lot of things.

"One of the things that’s been talked about a lot in farming and land use terms for decades now is multi-functional land use. People seeing land use as being more than just producing food, it’s about biodiversity and food production and nature and access and renewable energy and all these things together.

"Additionally, there’s a particular need for us to think about carbon in this equation more carefully than we had done before, so thinking about the way that farming systems can achieve all of those things we’ve asked of them before, but can also do a good job of sequestering carbon, reducing greenhouse gas emissions on top of those other things."

The Scottish Government has set up five farmer-led groups across the sector to develop advice, which would inform its decision-making in the drive to cut emissions. This points to a growing recognition that farmers need to be at the front of the debate, a position highlighted by Simm. 
"I agree that farmers need to be championing this response to the climate change challenge," he says. "They need to be leading that, not the victims of it, because so much of this depends on what we do with land and they’re managing that land so they need to be right there at the front of this debate. 

"Too much of the narrative around this in the past has seen them as the villains of the piece, or the victims, and they need to be the champions of it and these people are. I know plenty of farmers in Scotland who are leading this charge, so we need to celebrate that. We need to listen to that, we need to really learn from that but undoubtedly get it scaled up and get every farmer or most farmers in Scotland doing what some of the leaders are currently doing."

McCornick, who is a livestock farmer in Dumfries, chooses to stay positive about their role in tackling climate change but concedes it's not always easy. "Farmers are optimistic," he says. "But the doom and gloom does have an impact on them. It depresses them that they’re not getting the full recognition.

"If there's positives to come out of COVID-19, it was in March/April last year when people began to realise and appreciate local food and what local farmers were doing to put food on the shelves of the supermarkets… If we get people to understand what we can do and are doing, I think we’ve got a very good story to tell." 

Read the most recent article written by Jack Thomson - Leader of the flock: 25 years on from Dolly the Sheep

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