Thursday, 21 June 2018

Farming must move past the distraction over methane

New research shows that the global warming impact of methane, as a flow gas with a short half life, can be wholly mitigated providing emissions remain constant. 

This makes Farmwel's proposal for a Farmland Forest more timely than ever, because it offers animal agriculture the opportunity to deliver a highly visible, meaningful public good and to step past industry critics unhelpfully focussed on methane emissions from cattle and sheep.

The Oxford Martin research, which is explained clearly by Dr Michelle Cain in an article for Carbon Brief, shows that the impacts of methane should be measured differently from carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Methane accounts for around 36% of UK greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, but its global warming potential is much less than CO2 (9% of total UK farming emissions), and N20 (55%). 

Dr Cain writes that, 'If the herd [of cows] remains the same size with the same methane emissions every year, it will maintain the same amount of additional methane in the atmosphere year on year. In terms of its contribution to warming, this is equivalent to the closed power station.'  Neither one is continuing to push up greenhouse gas emissions.

This research has been published at just the right time.  British farming leaders have seemed to be on the back foot ever since the referendum decision to leave the European Union. Reasonable concern about the impact of changes in financial support have often left them clasping to the past rather than embracing the enormous opportunities presented by the future.  

We are now overdue a positive vision for the future of British agriculture, which is farmer-led, and which establishes the business case for continued funding focussed on a transition to public goods and environmental services.  

Profitable, successful, working farms are the best and cheapest way to manage over 70% of the United Kingdom's land proficiently and sustainably.  This will require changes in land management and improvements in farm animal welfare, but these changes can have a profoundly positive impact on UK farming futures. 

Farmwel has proposed the creation of a permanent Farmland Forest, using 5% of farmland, which should be established to strengthen biodiversity, improve hedgerows, manage water, enrich farm animal environments, improve animal health outcomes, and enhance beauty.  

This woodland would also sequester the equivalent of UK agriculture’s total methane emissions, forever. 

Of course, this 5% would be in aggregate. Some farms would find it difficult to identify 5% of land that is suitable for permanent tree planting, while others may be able to identify substantially more.  Importantly, this woodland should not just be block planted, but integrated dynamically across the whole farm.  The public should pay farmers in perpetuity for the permanent maintenance of this land as woodland, integrated with farm animals and crops.  The environmental services provided by this one simple policy objective would be many and substantial.

The Oxford Martin research comes at a critical time for animal agriculture. The environmental impacts of food animals have come under sustained public scrutiny in recent months, and it is true that much must be done to reduce the ecological footprint of beef, sheep, pork and poultry production.  Animal farming on low or no pasture systems can have a substantial detrimental impact on biodiversity, soil health, water and air quality, and stock greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 and N20).  

This need not be the case. This research, combined with delivery of the Farmland Forest, offers British farmers, the government, and the general public the opportunity to permanently mitigate methane emissions resulting from UK food production and to begin restoring biodiversity on every farm in Britain.

END

Farmwel's Farmland Forest proposal is explained in more detail below.

Creation of a new, permanent Farmland Forest 

In summary – 
A new permanent Farmland Forest, using 5% of farmland, should be established to strengthen biodiversity, improve hedgerows, manage water, enrich farm animal environments, improve animal health outcomes, and enhance beauty.  This woodland would also sequester the equivalent of UK agriculture’s total methane emissions, forever. [1]

Tree planting provides the opportunity to deliver an enormous range of absolutely critical sustainable farming outcomes.  Trees, planted in the right place, will:

  • Substantially enhance biodiversity
  • Improve soil quality and help arrest the loss of top soil
  • Improve water management, helping to reduce bogging and flood risk Improve the control of dangerous parasites such as liver fluke by reducing lying water and boosting biodiversity levels (increasing predation of the water snails that host and disperse the parasite in its early stages)
  • Create shelter from extreme weather, leading to improve animal health and resilience
  • Improve the health and welfare of farm animals
  • Strengthen hedgerows, as part of ongoing hedgerow management and improvement
  • Create and contribute to wildlife corridors
  • Enhance beauty, complement heritage, and enrich the countryside
  • Screen development, for example clean energy installations
  • Sequester carbon
UK greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are approximately 9% of total UK emissions, and equate to 45MtCO2e per year. [2]  To offset agriculture’s total emissions would require approximately 180 million mature trees (assessed on an average sequestration value across a range of species) which would require (based on average spacing requirements) about 225,000 hectares of land. This equates to 1.3% of UK farmland.  Sequestration would occur by year 30, which would roughly take us to the year 2050.  We believe planting trees on 1.3% of farmland would be highly achievable.  

However, we also believe that a drive to deliver higher quality, healthier food and diets could make even more land available to be transitioned into permanent woodland.  Methane currently represents 36% of UK agriculture’s total emissions, and has an approximately 10 year active life.  By planting 648m trees on 4.68% of farmland we could, by year 30, sequester agriculture’s total methane emissions, forever – providing that methane emissions are not allowed to exceed their current annual total.  We believe there is a strong argument for planting a new Farmland Forest on 5% of farmland – to strengthen biodiversity, improve hedgerows, manage water, enrich farm animal environments, and improve animal health outcomes, and offset UK agriculture’s total methane emissions, forever.

England itself represents 77% of the UK and, if we assume equal responsibility from all parts of UK agriculture, we would need to plant 138.6m trees on 1.3% of English farmland, or 498.96m trees on 4.68% of English farmland.

We believe that both these planting targets are achievable, given the right incentives, over a five-year timescale – meaning that the Farmland Forest, if the policy began alongside a transition period starting from 2021, could be planted by 2026, delivering mature sequestration by 2056.

The sequestration of carbon emissions is just one important aspect of this policy recommendation.  Crucially, tree planting, if done well, will strengthen biodiversity, improve hedgerows, manage water, enrich farm animal environments, improve animal health outcomes, and enhance beauty.  These are all of critical importance to the sustainable future of UK agriculture.

For this policy to be a success farmers must be advised well, but then empowered to take control of their own woodland management schemes.  Farmers should not be overly restricted by existing planting formulas and regimes.  

To achieve the greatest benefit for multiple outcomes farmers should be able to develop tree management plans which include marginal land, boggy patches, field boundaries, hedgerows, and hard to reach corners – trees could be planted in lines, clumps, spinneys and woodland areas – they could integrate with farmland animals or be on set aside land.  Tree planting should also integrate with farm and landscape type.  The integration of trees with livestock farming is increasingly common in sustainable systems.  For example, many free range hen ranges already host trees, with ideal tree densities of 20% of the total land area.  

We believe this policy would leave an extremely positive, lasting and visible legacy.  It could be funded directly by government, and in partnership with food businesses and food producers.  We believe it could win the support of farmers, citizens and politicians across Britain.

Notes:

  1. We could, by year 30, sequester agriculture’s total methane emissions, forever – providing that methane emissions are not allowed to exceed their current annual total.  
  2. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/69225/pb13622-ghg-emission-projections.pdf