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Future farming

Future farming

The UK is using its limited land badly. Government plans won’t make agriculture change fast enough

Of the many promises Brexiteers made, from tariff-free trade with the EU to an unchanged Irish border, a greener farming policy seemed one of the few to survive contact with reality. Leaving the EU, with agricultural subsidies that benefited farmers but were disastrous for wildlife, would be an opportunity to deliver a “Green Brexit”. Ministers promised that farmers would be supported to reduce emissions and be stewards of nature.

This is critical; land use and farming are major sources of emissions but must become carbon sinks, storing the residual emissions of other sectors that can’t hit zero. But the distance between this need and government plans is gaping wide.

Farms covering 70 per cent of the UK create 12 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including 47 per cent of methane, a gas 80 times worse for global warming than CO2. In addition, Britons rely on a similarly sized area overseas to fill their stomachs. Too much space is currently given to the production of meat that…

  • People don’t want. UK residents ate 17g less meat per day in 2018 than in 2008. The share of people eating lamb grazed on windswept hillsides in Wales or the Lake District that would be ideal for carbon sequestration fell from one in four in 2008 to one in ten in 2018. That’s a trend that’s likely to continue: the younger someone is, the less likely they are to eat meat. 
  • People don’t need. Most farmland – 85 per cent – is given over to meat production, which provides just a third of the calories people need. In contrast, crops grown on 15 per cent of land supply 68 per cent of calories.
  • The planet can’t afford. The UK’s independent Climate Change Committee (CCC), whose job it is to advise the government, called for a 20 per cent reduction in consumption of beef, lamb, and dairy by 2050 to save seven megatonnes of on-farm emissions by 2050

To get to net zero, farmers must switch cows for crops, hens for hedgerows and sheep for undisturbed soil where carbon-capturing mycorrhizal fungi can flourish. Some farmers are doing sterling work in protecting the environment – but a third think it’s not important to consider greenhouse gas emissions when making decisions about crops or livestock. 

Money is the mechanism to make them do it. 40 per cent of farms depend on subsidies for their survival and, after Brexit, the Treasury has both more money to spend on every farmer and sole power on how to spend it. The lever it has chosen is the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), which opens in June and will encourage farmers in England and Wales to create “public goods” like clean water, better biodiversity and healthier soil, rather than giving them cash based only on the area of land they manage.

It sounds promising, but there’s a risk that environmentalists and farmers all end up disappointed with the results:

  • Farmers feel unprepared. NFU boss Minette Batters, a speaker at the Tortoise Climate Summit on 12 May, has said farmers have felt “in the dark” about how to benefit from the subsidies for a long time.
  • One size doesn’t fit all. Environmentalists worry the plan is an “anywhere” scheme which gives the same rewards given to farmers managing very different kinds of land.

If the government is to use its post-Brexit power over farming for the good of the planet, the SFI won’t be enough. More focused funding will be needed to turn farmland with the greatest potential to sequester carbon entirely over to nature, and to spur low-intensity farms to bring back wildlife corridors and hedgerows that allow farming and nature to exist in harmony.

Tortoise Climate Summit

The world must cut emissions fast. At the second annual Climate Summit on 12 May, we will investigate whether a fair transition can help the world get to net zero faster. Do join us.

A global transition

In episode four of our myth-busting podcast series with the Centre for Net Zero and Octopus Energy, Lucy and Giles explore how every country – from China to Kenya – is going through its own transformation.


Banking on net zero
At Cop26 financial institutions pledged to deploy $130 trillion worth of assets towards getting to net zero. But a year on from its founding, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) has been criticised as a “smokescreen to hide the sector’s foot-dragging on decarbonisation”. A letter from 50 NGOs including Reclaim Finance and CAN International says only 60 out of 240 of the largest GFANZ members have a policy of ruling out support for new coal projects. In 2021, the 44 largest members of the affiliated Net-Zero Banking Alliance lent $143.6 billion to the 75 companies doing most to expand oil and gas. Mark Carney and Michael Bloomberg, co-founders of GFANZ, have responded by saying GFANZ membership is still growing, particularly in Asia, and that “plumbing work” needs to be done to turn firms’ commitments into concrete transition plans. One way to get the job done sooner is to mandate net zero strategies for banks and listed firms. The UK is making headway in this area with the launch of a new Transition Plan Taskforce yesterday. Why aren’t Carney and Bloomberg doing more to push for similar reforms globally?


Counting chickens
Investors are being urged to drop JBS, the world’s largest meat processing company, after a study found its greenhouse gas emissions have risen more than 50 per cent in the past five years. The company, which is headquartered in Brazil, claimed the report’s methodology was “flawed” but hasn’t provided official figures for the past year and doesn’t report on the gases emitted from the 26.8 million cattle, 46.7 million pigs and 4.9 billion chickens in its global supply chain. Independent observers tell the FT the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, which led the study, has a “good record of reporting emissions accurately”. JBS is one of the first major meatpackers to pledge to reach net zero by 2040, but that won’t cleanse a corporate image sullied by multiple corruption and deforestation scandals. For more information on rhetoric versus reality from the world’s largest food producers and retailers look out for Tortoise’s Better Food Index, dropping in beta this Thursday.


Cumbrian coal
Plans to open a new coal mine in Cumbria are on the “verge of approval”, Tory sources tell the Telegraph. Michael Gove, the housing secretary, has until 7 July to make a decision about Woodhouse Colliery – which would be the first deep coal mine to be opened in the UK in 30 years. Apparently the invasion of Ukraine has united the cabinet behind an idea it says will enable UK steel plants to wean themselves off Russian coal. Maybe. But how does a return to the dirtiest fuel play with the public? Recent polling for the right-leaning think tank Onward should give ministers pause: even with rising energy costs and the war in Ukraine, 64 per cent of UK voters support reaching net zero by 2050. Just 9 per cent oppose it. Independent polling commissioned by Tortoise found this support to be even more pronounced in the “red wall” where people are on average “more concerned” about climate change than the rest of the country. 

engagement and activism

A deadly protest
A US climate activist has died after setting himself on fire outside the Supreme Court in Washington DC. Wynn Bruce, 50, from Colorado, did not, as far as police can tell, leave any note explaining his motive, but had recently edited a comment on his Facebook to add the date 22 April and a fire emoji. The comment was in response to a post about climate change. Kritee Kanko, a friend of Bruce and member of the same Buddhist community, tweeted: “This act is not suicide. This is a deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to climate crisis.” She later told the New York Times she was unsure of Bruce’s intentions. The last US citizen to publicly immolate themselves to draw attention to climate change was David Buckel – a prominent civil rights lawyer who died after setting fire to himself in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in 2018.

Thanks for reading.

Ellen Halliday

Additional reporting by Barney Macintyre. Graphs by Katie Riley. Edited by Giles Whittell and Jeevan Vasagar.

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