The group of scientists that advise the UK government on climate change policy has recommended that 46% of agricultural land in NI should be taken out of production by 2050.

According to the Climate Change Committee (CCC), a “transformation in land use” is needed to reduce emissions from agriculture and to increase the land area used for capturing carbon.

This includes increasing the area of woodland, agro-forestry, restored peatland and energy crops.

Indra Thillainathan from the CCC said an 82% decline in total greenhouse gas emissions in NI could be achieved by 2050, and to help meet that target, a 57% reduction in emissions from the agriculture sector is required.

The body has recommended that consumer diets change so that 20% less dairy and 35% less meat is consumed in the UK by 2050.

“Diet change not only brings down agriculture emissions, it also releases a lot of land out of agriculture. You need to free up grassland to grow more trees and restore peatland,” Thillainathan maintained.

However, a comparison of international beef farming emissions by the CCC confirms that UK beef production has one of lowest carbon footprints in the world. It is almost four times lower than Brazil and six times less than Indonesia.

“When you do eat meat, it should be local, domestic produce. We don’t want to be off-shoring our emissions overseas by importing higher-emitting meat products,” Thillainathan said.

During the NI Institute of Agricultural Science webinar, members raised various queries about the recommendations made by the CCC.

For example, with UK farmers having lower carbon footprints than their international competitors, there is an argument that local production should increase to help serve export markets where demand for protein foods is growing.

Also, questions were raised about why the CCC had not accurately accounted for the short atmospheric lifespan of methane (emitted by ruminant livestock) or considered how grassland can both capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and support livestock.

The latter point has been demonstrated in a long running study at AFBI Hillsborough, where soil carbon levels have been increasing in an intensively managed grassland plot for over 40 years.

“It would be interesting to see that research,” Thillainathan acknowledged.