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Could 'net zero' climate targets mean more indoor farming?

PUBLISHED: 13:11 21 November 2019 | UPDATED: 13:57 21 November 2019

Net-zero climate targets could prompt a shift towards more indoor food production, such as the large tomato greenhouses planned at Kirby Bedon near Norwich. Picture: BOM Group

Net-zero climate targets could prompt a shift towards more indoor food production, such as the large tomato greenhouses planned at Kirby Bedon near Norwich. Picture: BOM Group

BOM Group

Farmers were warned that "net zero" carbon reduction policies could dramatically transform Norfolk's agricultural landscape - potentially fast-tracking new innovations like indoor food production.

Emily Norton, head of rural research at Savills. Picture: Julia HollandEmily Norton, head of rural research at Savills. Picture: Julia Holland

Significant change is already on the horizon as Brexit will bring a move away from the EU's existing land-based Basic Payment subsidies in favour of a new system rewarding farmers for environmental improvements and "natural capital" such as carbon stored in the soil and woodland.

But Emily Norton, head of rural research at Savills, said the climate crisis could introduce even more radical change into the policy debate ahead - which may signal "the end of sustainable agriculture as we recognise it".

The Norfolk farmer said the new green payments system, called the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), does not yet reflect the broader political focus on "net zero" climate and tree-planting policies now emerging in general election campaigns.

And with more land devoted to environmental goals, she said there will be a need for more efficient low-carbon food production such as controlled-environment indoor growing systems.

Net-zero climate targets could radically transform Norfolk's farming landscape, said a rural expert. Picture: Mike PageNet-zero climate targets could radically transform Norfolk's farming landscape, said a rural expert. Picture: Mike Page

"Pursuing carbon efficiency in agriculture is going to be transformational," she said. "The easiest way to reduce emissions from agriculture in the UK is to stop farming - but clearly we need to eat and importing food does not improve our carbon footprint.

"Farmers have naturally been adopting a wait-and-see approach to accessing ELMS, but the climate debate could fast-track disruptive agricultural innovation and signal the end of sustainable agriculture as we recognise it here in Norfolk. Farm businesses need to be aware of the direction of travel in which net zero targets take us.

"The Committee on Climate Change Land Use Change report recommended the release of around half of all UK arable land to 'environmental adaptation'. If we're to produce the same amount of food, this signals a major shift to innovations like controlled environment agriculture - removing food production from the soil.

"However controversial it might feel, if agriculture as an industry accepts the net zero challenge we need to be prepared to adapt accordingly. This wet autumn has highlighted the financial and physical costs of conventional farming using machines in fields to harvest vegetable and root crops. Net zero, climate change and technological innovation all suggest that more indoor production is inevitable for a variety of crops."

READ MORE: Construction work begins on vast tomato greenhouse

She said while there is still no clear idea of the funding level for ELMS, it will be conditional on being able to prove environmental benefits.

"At the same time, farmers might be expected to meet as-yet-unknown net zero land use targets for tree planting, carbon offsetting and land use change," she said. "Some of these might be 'carrot', being income generating and profitable, but some might take the form of a 'stick'."

Emily Norton was speaking to rural professionals at a breakfast meeting at Dunston Hall, hosted by Savills' Norwich office.

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