The debate about farming and climate change has been more than a little contentious. When an issue is this complex, it can become dominated by sound bites: cows are bad, sheep destroy the landscape, and we should put most of Scotland to trees to save the planet. And despite the plethora of reports from NGOs, farmer-led groups and academia, there was little actual progress on this pressing issue. It is in this context that we worked with the National Farmers Union in Scotland to set-up the Farming for 1.5 Inquiry.
The Inquiry aimed to establish how agriculture in Scotland could meet the challenge of limiting global warming to 1.5C. The Inquiry panel consisted of farmers, academics and NGO representatives, working together to deliver a consensus. The panel examined the evidence, went on farm visits and spent long hours debating to reach agreement. The Farming for 1.5: From here to 2045 report published today is a result of this work.
The main message of the report is: it is possible to reduce emissions, increase biodiversity and maintain production. The discussion about net zero often polarises between more-and-less: more rewilding, less farming; more trees, less crops; more biodiversity, less livestock. The report argues, if we do it right, it is possible to do both.
Firstly, the recent years have brought forward some incredibly promising developments. Chief amongst them is low-methane breeding. We now know that individual cows and sheep can be predisposed to having lower methane emissions. We can use that information to selectively breed for that quality in future generations. This, along with using new feed additives, can cut methane emissions by 50%. In arable farming, using nitrogen-fixing plants like peas or beans in rotation and precision spreading of manure will reduce the need for fertiliser. There is also a lot of room for improvement in how the manure is managed, including setting-up exchange schemes between farmers. These and other immediate measures can help farmers significantly cut emissions.
Secondly, we need to be setting up for a longer-term change. This, the report suggests, needs to happen in 5 overlapping phases:
- Phase 1: getting the data right, improving how we measure emissions, testing for soil carbon and working with farmers to capture that information;
- Phase 2: supporting and encouraging farmers to take up some of the short-term measures as soon as possible;
- Phase 3: introducing mandatory contracts between government and farmers for reducing emissions;
- Phase 4: focusing on harnessing the potential of agroforestry;
- Phase 5: planting right trees in right places.
Finally, this transformation cannot happen without two key ingredients: a solid theory of change and support mechanisms. To put it plainly, we need to know what we’re doing, and we have to do it together. The scale of the challenge is too great to leave it to farmers alone. The government is uniquely placed to bring coordination and leadership to this space. They can do that by improving advice services and peer-learning for farmers, investing in research and development, and continuing to bring all stakeholders round the table.
The scale of the challenge before us is substantial. To quote from Nigel Miller, the Co-Chair of the Inquiry and the former President of NFUS, with this report the Inquiry is “in some ways revisiting principles which were established in the 18th century with the first agricultural revolution”. Tackling the nature and climate emergencies requires us to redefine the role of farmers. For decades we’ve been asking them to deliver food, and they have stepped up to that challenge despite many difficulties. Now we’re asking them to deliver for nature and climate too, because the path to net zero has to go through a farm gate.