Agriculture is unique: It supplies food, stores carbon and generates renewable energy

Friday, 23 August, 2019

Policy blog by UFU policy manager, James McCluggage

In the wake of the misreporting by the BBC on the UN’s IPCC report on land use and climate change, it has never been so important for farmers to educate themselves and the public about the truth behind greenhouse gas emissions.

Agriculture is unique. It supplies food, stores carbon and generates renewable energy. Farming is now on the frontline of climate change impacts, being particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events.

However, agriculture in the UK has significant potential to address the challenge of producing for the future as well as tackling climate change.

Climate change is affecting every farmer across the globe.  At the same time, the global demand for food is increasing and, according to UN forecasts, the number of mouths to feed will rise to nearly 10 billion by 2050. For some, the answer today is to reduce production to mitigate the impact of agriculture on the climate, but that would not solve the global challenge of nourishing a growing population. The question is how trade-offs between climate, biodiversity, food production, and rural development should be managed. Reducing the UK agricultural production would only move production to countries where milk, cereal, or meat production has a higher climate impact.

Our production systems are not as intensive as the North/South American feed lot systems.  NI grass-based systems turn grass into high quality protein.  What we also do is produce iconic landscapes.  The fact the NI countryside looks the way it does, is predominately down to the way that it is farmed.  You name a countryside in the world when you fly into an airport that looks like anywhere in the UK or Ireland?!

We must not be scared as farmers to highlight to the public that our carbon footprint is four times lower than Brazil’s. Furthermore, 10 million hectares of UK pasture stores approximately 600m tonnes of carbon.

Cattle emit a mixture of carbon dioxide and methane.  Methane breaks down in around 12 years, so the methane given out 12 years ago by your herd has disappeared and been replaced by the methane from your current herd.  The source of the carbon (in both methane and carbon dioxide) is the critical point.  It is captured from the air by the plant whilst its photosynthesizing.  The animal comes along and eats that captured carbon, then digests it and releases the carbon back into the air.  That’s why it is called the carbon cycle. We must not be scared to shout out that cattle and sheep are a very natural component of the Carbon cycle.  They emit carbon, but they live on grass that sequestrates it and is therefore a circle.

This is the positive narrative that we must get out there.