Climate change: What will our low-carbon farming landscape look like by 2050?
PUBLISHED: 11:04 08 November 2019 | UPDATED: 11:56 08 November 2019
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Both the government and the farming industry have set ambitious “net-zero” carbon emissions targets. But what effect will climate change – and the efforts to mitigate it – have on East Anglia’s farming landscape by 2050?
While the threat of climate change has been propelled into the headlines by Extinction Rebellion protests, the agricultural industry has been facing up to its responsibilities to reduce its carbon footprint.
The government has committed to the UK becoming "net-zero" for carbon emissions by 2050, and farming must play a major role in that goal as it generates an estimated 10pc of the country's greenhouse gas emissions.
A report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has outlined the "fundamental changes" in land use needed to meet these climate goals.
It says reducing the amount of livestock offers the biggest potential opportunity, with cattle and sheep directly accounting for around 58pc of agriculture emissions.
As well as fewer grazing animals, the wider vision of low-carbon precision farming includes an army of smaller, smarter farm machines delivering fertiliser and pesticides more efficiently, with more food produced from less land, and more trees being planted to store carbon.
The National Farmers' Union has set its own target of becoming net-zero a decade earlier by 2040, without cutting meat production, through methods including improving health in cattle and sheep to reduce methane emissions, and reducing cultivation to minimise emissions of nitrogen and carbon back into the atmosphere.
But as well as the mitigation measures to halt the causes of climate change, the warming environment could also bring opportunities for more exotic crops to be grown in East Anglia.
The region is already seeing a proliferation of grapevines for wine, and this summer a Norfolk farm harvested the UK's first commercial crop of chickpeas - usually imported from warmer climes in the Mediterranean, Asia and North America. The CCC report suggests other crop diversification could include sunflowers, grain maize and more fruits.
Jason Beedell, rural research director at rural agency Strutt and Parker, said East Anglia's land managers are "on the front line" when it comes to dealing with climate change, but each farm will choose different approaches based on their location and circumstances.
"The debate about the role that livestock play in climate change is ongoing and is not clear cut," he said. "While the CCC controversially argues that there needs to be a move away from beef, lamb and dairy production, this view is being challenged by the farming sector which points out that there are wider environmental benefits from grass-fed beef and sheep, plus the carbon footprint of UK cattle is also estimated to be two-and-a-half times lower than the global average.
"The CCC report also points to increased consumption of pig and poultry meat, so this could be an opportunity for farmers in the region, as well as growing more plant-based protein, such as yellow peas and beans and even soya.
"It is possible that the arable landscape in Norfolk changes less than in other regions of the UK - because there will still be a need to produce food and Norfolk has many larger producers with soils well-suited to cereal and vegetable production who are already growing these crops efficiently.
"The CCC report says that food output needs to increase by 20-45pc by 2050 - highlighting that efficient food production needs to be a priority within the UK as a whole. The amount of food produced will increase and it will be produced from less land - only where it is profitable to do so."
Philip Richardson, a Norfolk farmer who achieved a UEA masters degree in climate change during his retirement, has published a book named "An Appetite for Change", which asks if governments and farmers are willing to make the changes necessary to ensure the wellbeing of future generations.
He said: "As far as livestock is concerned, in the last year or so I have been particularly conscious of the fact that meat is coming under attack. For more than 40 years I was a proponent of getting people to eat more meat. I have to say that the science is telling us now that we shouldn't.
"I am not saying we should all go vegan. But from the point of view of health and climate change, we have to be more sensible in our diets and eat less meat that we have in the past.
"On the arable side we shall see fewer changes in Norfolk than in other areas. We are blessed with good land and good yields so it is the sort of place we should be growing crops. But we will see more pressure on the environmental side about the use of agrochemicals, so how we get the yield is the question we are asking our scientists to answer in a hurry."
Mr Richardson said there is potential to grow different kinds of crops in a warmer climate - but more reservoirs will need to be built to ensure vital water supplies during increasingly dry summers, and flood risk will need to be managed to stop land being lost to rising sea levels.