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Net-Zero Farming Solutions for Climate Action

Written by: Jonathan Pinnick, NFFN Sustainable Lead for Northern Ireland

As I write this blog, large parts of the area where I live in County Fermanagh lie underwater, following several days of fairly incessant, heavy rain. People’s homes and businesses have been inundated, and roads blocked by floodwaters, threatening livelihoods and causing untold stress and anxiety for those affected. 

Whilst out for a walk in the countryside yesterday, during a brief interlude in the deluge, I came across numerous fields that had been transformed into lakes, where cattle would have been happily grazing just a few short days ago. 

Meanwhile, on the news, we hear of the terrible wildfires ravaging parts of Greece, in tinder-dry conditions that have persisted in the region throughout the summer. These two examples are just the latest in a string of similar incidents that have occurred in recent months across the globe. And the chief suspect behind these seemingly ever-increasing extreme events – climate change.

Working together 

The science behind climate change and the role that we, as humans, have played in destabilising our planet’s weather patterns and long-term climatic conditions are thankfully now virtually universally accepted. This shared understanding of the scale of the threat we face means that we are now in a position to take radical action to address this global challenge. 

However, the questions of how quickly we shift towards a net-zero future and how this will be funded are still bones of contention. Reaching an international consensus on these issues will be critical to the success or failure of the upcoming COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November. The release of the first of a series of reports by the IPCC, warning of the dire consequences of our continued inaction, will prove to be something of a wake-up call.

In 2019, the UK Climate Change Committee estimated that agriculture accounted for almost 30% of Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions. The farming sector is in a pretty unique position – being one of the industries that has arguably contributed most to causing climate change – but at the same time has the greatest potential for providing solutions to this existential problem.

Farming’s potential 

Technology will undoubtedly provide some of the answers through the increasing supply of renewable energy, low or no emission farm vehicles or carbon and methane capture and storage devices. However, there is a whole suite of cost-effective measures that farmers can employ to not only reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but also to lock away carbon on their farms. 

Emissions reduction measures, depending on the nature of the farm enterprise, can include but are not limited to: 

  • improving slurry/manure storage and spreading methods
  • optimising nitrogen fertiliser application
  • minimising the use of concentrated feed mixes
  • adopting a minimum or no-till approach
  • growing cover crops
  • minimising or eliminating the use of pesticide products in favour of an integrated pest management approach
  • reducing stocking density matching the carrying capacity of the land

Nature means business

Whilst employing some or all of these measures may result in yield reductions, the associated cost savings would in many cases offset these, enabling farmers to maintain their profit margins whilst reducing their carbon footprint. This is a framework that our England Chair, Chris Clark, has captured through his work on MSO (maximum sustainable output) – where farmers work to achieve MSO and get maximum returns for nature and business as a result. We have a Nature Means Business conference coming up on 19th October, when we’ll explore the “less is more” approach with workshops and discussions on working with nature to the mutual benefit of farming viability. More on this coming soon, but until then, check out our Nature Means Business report to learn more about MSO.

By adopting nature-friendly farming practices such as hedgerow planting, agroforestry, peatland or species-rich grassland restoration, or wetland creation, farmers have the potential to transform their businesses from being ‘net carbon emitters’ to ‘net carbon sequesters’.

Climate action closer to home

NFFN NI recently responded to the AERA committee’s consultation on the Private Members Climate Change Bill, calling for a net-zero emissions target for agriculture and associated land management across Northern Ireland by 2045. We recognise that this is a very ambitious target and is counter to the UK Climate Change Committee’s opinion that an 82% reduction by 2050 would be a stretch. However, we believe that the more ambitious target of net-zero by 2045 is appropriate given the urgency of the situation that we find ourselves in and is likely to drive more rapid changes within the agricultural industry and other land management sectors.

As an industry we have many of the solutions at our fingertips – what’s needed now is decisive political leadership, practical and financial support for farmers in Northern Ireland, the UK and across the world to make shifting to a net-zero farming future a reality.