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How farmers aim to hit 'net zero' emissions target by 2040 - without cutting meat production

PUBLISHED: 10:32 11 September 2019 | UPDATED: 10:52 11 September 2019

The NFU has outlined how it hopes to achieve its

The NFU has outlined how it hopes to achieve its "net zero" target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. Picture: Chris Hill

Chris Hill

Bigger hedgerows, precision delivery of fertilisers and improving animal health are among the ways the farming industry hopes to hit ambitious "net zero" greenhouse gas targets.

Jake Fiennes, general manager for conservation at the Holkham Estate. Picture: Carl EllisJake Fiennes, general manager for conservation at the Holkham Estate. Picture: Carl Ellis

The National Farmers' Union has published a report on how it intends to achieve the emissions goal by 2040, a decade ahead of the UK economy as a whole.

It includes reducing emissions from farming practices, increasing the ability of land to store more carbon, and focusing on renewable energy and products that remove carbon from the atmosphere.

British farms are responsible for around a tenth of UK greenhouse gas emissions, but only 10pc of its output is carbon dioxide, while 40pc is nitrous oxide from sources such as fertilisers, and 50pc is methane from cows and sheep.

A common theme in recent climate change debates surrounds cutting meat and dairy consumption from human diets to reduce emissions - a point often contested by livestock producers.

READ MORE: University takes red meat off the menu to cut carbon emissions - sparking anger from farmers

Farmers pointed out the benefits of pasture-fed systems in a country when the majority of farmland can only grow grass, and where the carbon footprint of red meat production is only 40pc of world averages.

Jake Fiennes is East Anglia's representative on the NFU Environment Forum and also general manager for conservation on the Holkham Estate, which uses cattle for both beef production and grazing grassland and marshes on the estate's National Nature Reserve (NNR).

He said: "I know many beef producers in Norfolk and across the UK who are really frustrated that British beef production is being put in the same category as, for example, American feedlots, where they are feeding cereals to bovines. If you look at the nature reserve here at Holkham, we have got cattle grazing across huge areas of grassland, which has a carbon-sinking effect. I am probably on a net gain with this kind of grazing.

"I am looking across the Holkham NNR at a herd of Belted Galloways grazing an iconic landscape beautifully to the benefit of rare wildlife like lapwings, spoonbills and redshanks. I consider Holkham NNR as a working farm producing beef, and as a by-product it produces unbelievable biodiversity.

"I think all of us need to eat better quality meat, and less of it. We need to look at the supermarket shelves and see beef that we know is grass-reared with high welfare and low food miles, and not the feedlot-style beef.

"We are very good in the UK at managing our farmed environment and I think we do it better than most. The farming industry can make huge gains on carbon emissions and redress the wildlife declines of the last 40 years."

READ MORE: Beef farmers defend their industry amid 'meat-free' climate change debate

Agricultural emissions have fallen by 16pc overall since 1990, but there has been only "modest progress" since 2011, the NFU report says.

Farm businesses can make an important contribution to the UK's legally binding target to cut its climate emissions to zero, and over the next 20 years work could reduce, offset and balance out the 45.6m tonnes of emissions agriculture is responsible for, the NFU said.

Efforts to cut on-farm emissions could include improving health in cattle and sheep to reduce methane emissions, precision farming for crops to deliver nutrients and pesticides more efficiently, and reducing soil compaction to cut the need for cultivation and minimise nitrogen emissions.

Ways farms can store more carbon on the land include providing bigger hedgerows, more woodland and trees and boosting the carbon storage of soils, including peatland and wetland restoration.

Farmers can also contribute by supporting renewables, including energy from plant materials combined with technology to capture the emissions when it is burned for power.

Mr Fiennes said the net-zero target is "admirable and ambitious", adding: "But I do believe it is achievable. If we aim high it sends a message to the rest of the world that this is possible."

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