Farmers must make radical changes to combat climate emergency, says industry leader
- Credit: Keiron Tovell
Norfolk farmers were told they must accept radical changes to the way they work if their industry is to help combat an increasingly urgent climate emergency.
The future sustainability of agriculture was a key topic at the Norfolk Farming Conference, which brought hundreds of farmers to the John Innes Centre on the Norwich Research Park.
Among the industry leaders speaking at the event was Sir Peter Kendall, chairman of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), who said "we are facing the biggest changes to farming since either the second tor the first agricultural revolution".
He said the fires in Australia and last weekend's Storm Ciara were indicators of the scale and pace of climate change - which would force some difficult decisions on the region's farms if the industry is to reach its stated goal of reaching "net zero" greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.
Sir Peter said this could mean re-examining cropping choices in the face of wetter winters and drier summers, and questioning livestock production volumes and the need to use "diesel-guzzling 600hp tractors".
Meanwhile, he said new crop science breakthroughs and precision agriculture technology could improve the productivity of British farming and reduce its damage to precious soils and the environment.
"I think it is really obvious that farming's future is inextricably linked to climate change," he said "If we are committed to finding solutions to climate change we need to transform the way we farm. It is not just about saying to government: 'You need us because our grass is a carbon store' - we need to make changes to our practices too.
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"600hp diesel-guzzling tractors moving huge amounts of soil will, I think be viewed as sacrilege in the future. Creating farming systems that balance carbon-absorbing cover crops with energy-hungry food crops will become essential. "We also need to be really honest with ourselves about the impact of livestock production and consumption.
"If we are committed to 'net zero', we cannot cherry-pick. If it means doing less of some things and more of others, then we will have to do it If it means moving some food production into highly intensive hydroponics, we can't shout: 'That's not farming'. If it means increasing scrutiny of how we do it - then, to be credible, we have to embrace that as well.
"Climate change is a massive opportunity, but it will come at a cost to us as an industry to change what we do. I think this industry is well placed if we can be collectively ambitious to transform it."
Sir Peter said British farming also needed to acknowledge it had a "productivity challenge", with growth in this area lagging behind countries like the Netherlands and the USA.
And with the EU's direct payment subsidies being phased out after Brexit, he said British farmers needed to be protected in future trade deal negotiations to ensure they were not left exposed to cheap food imports produced to lower standards - leaving them economically unable to meet the twin challenges of productivity and climate change.
"I cannot say this strongly enough," he said. "It would be insane for us to undermine British agriculture at this time. If we are going to reach this ambition of net zero, and we accept we need to change what we do, then we should be able to do a deal with the government to not undermine us at this time."
Another speaker was Patrick Begg, natural resources director for the National Trust. He said climate change had reached a tipping point which needed immediate action - and the government's new agriculture and environment bills needed to "gear together" to create a positive contract between agriculture and ecology which recognised conservation as a "cash crop".
"We are at five minutes to midnight," he said. "We cannot delay any more in acting on climate change before it tips us over the edge.
"We need these laws ready to run and we need the agriculture and environment bills to work inextricably together. And we must stand shoulder to shoulder to get the multi-annual budgets we need to develop these better land uses in the future."