In the next 25 years, Scottish agriculture will have to capture the same amount of carbon it releases if Government targets are to be met.

Back in 2019, the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) advised government that Scotland could be net zero for carbon emissions by 2045, five years ahead of England. For Wales, the 2050 target is to reduce emissions by 95%, and for NI it is an 82% reduction, which reflects the fact that NI is likely to remain a significant net exporter of agri food.

In Scotland, an independent group of farmers, scientists and environmentalists were tasked with devising a route for farmers to reach net zero by 2045. The Farming for 1.5°C group, co-chaired by former NFU Scotland president Nigel Miller, produced an interim report in November 2020.

However, the starting point when looking into the future is the recommendations made by the CCC.

The committee recommends an increase in agricultural productivity on good quality land

The model used by the CCC starts with the premise that food production in the UK remains at current levels, which will be critical if we are not to offshore our environmental impact by simply importing all our food.

In crude terms, the committee recommends an increase in agricultural productivity on good quality land, which will free up other areas for trees and energy crops.

However, alongside that are various assumptions, including that food waste is halved, and that the public’s diet will change, with people eating 20% less red meat and dairy by 2030. This would mean that ruminant numbers would fall, although an increasing UK population might mean the expected reduction in cattle is actually closer to 10%.

Currently, suckler cow numbers are falling 1% a year in Scotland.

Planting Fife in trees

In Scotland, woodland currently covers an estimated 18.5% of total land, and by 2032 the Scottish Government has set a target to increase this to 21%. That would equate to planting an area greater than the size of Fife over the next 12 years.

But if we end up producing less, and planting more, it will not simply solve the issue, as imported meat often has higher emissions per kg.

To complicate it even further, the Scottish Government wants to improve biodiversity and protect rural communities during the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Beef production in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

Trying to balance all these outcomes is no easy task, points out Nigel Miller.

His group published A Transformation Pathway interim report in November 2020 which sets out five phases of transformation required to deliver the net zero target, starting with “culture change” in Phase 1, through to “land-use change” in Phase 5.

Phase 1

The first phase would involve establishing a baseline across farms, and getting farmers thinking about carbon emissions. The entire farm is assessed to include carbon sequestered in woodlands, hedges, wetlands, etc.

“The Government would have to accept that farming’s net zero was a compound of a whole range of factors on the farmed area, to include carbon taken in, as well as emitted,” said Nigel Miller.

Every farm would be supported to routinely analyse soil, and farmers would be obliged to build soil carbon on 20% of their cropped area each year. This could be through applying manure, compost or crop residue. Or it could be through growing green manure or establishing a grazed break crop.

The Government would have to accept that farming’s net zero was a compound of a whole range of factors on the farmed area

Another proposal is for a tenth of the farm to be used for improved biodiversity and sequester carbon. Farms with high levels already may be exempt, but many units will need to do things such as establish water margins, break crops, green manure, woodland or agro-forestry. Smaller farms may have a reduced area allocated due to a disproportionate impact on their viability.

Phase 2

The second phase allows farmers to select from a menu of options designed to mitigate against carbon emissions. To have a significant impact there needs to be widespread uptake and the more undertaken at this stage the less pressure on farms further down the line.

Examples of what farmers may be asked to do include use of clover in new leys, avoidance of ploughing of permanent pasture, nutrient budgeting, use of low emission slurry spreading equipment and selecting breeding animals based on performance recording figures.

Phase 3 and 4

Later phases will assume that best practice is now in place, and among the proposals are for targets to be set for individual farms to cut emissions. Businesses could choose two different paths to go down. The first is precision farming, which would utilise technology to maintain production, while tackling emissions. The second would be nature value farming which would turn much of the focus on to how that farm can capture carbon and improve biodiversity.

Phase 5

The final phase is centred on land use, and for some farms, a switch from grass and crops to growing trees, and for others, a restoration of peatland to capture more carbon.

The report recognises that some farmers would consider these changes now, and these people should be encouraged.

“Action on peatlands and creating woodlands, for example, should happen as soon as possible,” note the authors.

A future report will explore this issue in more detail.

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