Out to pasture?
Guy Smith talks to David Burrows about media messaging, agricultural emissions, and the NFU’s vision for getting the UK’s farming sector to net zero
Guy Smith produces sugar beet, barley, wheat, peas and beans in northeast Essex; he also grazes “a few sheep”. However, he doesn’t do much of the actual farming himself these days because he’s also deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union.
“I’m that horrendous thing, a weekend farmer,” he admits during our chat at the NFU’s new London base in Smith Square, Westminster. Indeed, the union’s combination of working farmers and professional staff is one of its quirks – and strengths. It has been pretty successful over the years, but the next few months could test Smith and his colleagues more than any other.
For one thing, there is Brexit. A report published in August, written by the NFU’s former chief economist Dr Séan Rickard and backed by the People’s Vote campaign, claimed that the UK crashing out of the EU could cause more than half of UK farms to go out of business. Flooding their home market with cheap goods from overseas was not the vision farmers were sold. The political Pollyannas will argue that consumers will back British farmers and pay a premium for food produced here to higher standards of welfare, safety and sustainability – but what if they don’t? After all, it’s happened before with pork.
In the 1990s, the Conservative government proposed restrictions to the way pigs could be kept, and within a decade sow stalls were outlawed (the metal cages are designed so the sow cannot turn around for the whole of her 16-week pregnancy). Polling suggested that this was what consumers wanted; the line from government and retailers was that farmers would get a premium for the higher standards – so farmers invested. However, the support never materialised: with no restrictions on imports, retailers continued to import pig meat from countries still using sow stalls. “Consumers let us down,” says Smith. “They didn’t back up what they were telling politicians.” Smith isn’t advocating a return to these systems and a decline in welfare. Rather, he is highlighting the difference between consumer aspiration and consumer behaviour – a gap that those doing trade deals should be mindful of. Producers, like their animals, need protection.
Brexit isn’t the only storm farmers are currently weathering. Agriculture’s environmental impact is high-profile news and the anti-meat agenda has been “another knife in the ribs” for farmers (beef prices have also slid to crisis point). “The vegan lobby are hijacking the climate debate,” says Smith.
A flick through the current week’s farming press reveals a number of stories on the issue. ‘Farmers fight back against anti-meat agenda’ is the lead in Farmers Weekly, for example, while Farmers Guardian covers an apparent willingness in the Labour Party to put a carbon footprint label on foods and perhaps even introduce a meat tax. Scottish Farmer, meanwhile, homes in on the increasingly public spat between the BBC and the farming sector – the latter feels it is being blamed for the world’s woes.
In August, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report entitled Climate Change and Land. As usual, it was a fiercely detailed and scientific assessment, but most news outlets – including the BBC – boiled it down to: “Eat less meat and save the planet, say UN experts”. It wasn’t quite that simple, though. The specific text reads: “Balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.”
For UK farmers, the line “animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems” was key. This is what NFU members are doing, according to Smith. “A bit of beef hasn’t got a standard bit of embedded carbon – it would very much depend on how that bit of beef is produced. We’d ask consumers to be a bit more discerning.” That’s difficult when the scientists aren’t all in agreement: the extensive grass-fed systems favoured by many UK farmers are not always lower-impact than more intensive systems. As Smith admits, the science on all this “isn’t particularly settled”.
The emissions question
He is quick to add that he isn’t denying climate change – “that isn’t where we want to be” – but the media’s message that reducing livestock is the best way to combat it is not, in his view, wholly correct. “We think there is some twisted analysis going on, trying to suggest to consumers that the easiest way to stop climate change is to stop eating meat. We would argue that, in fact, transport and energy are really where it’s at.”
Emissions from UK farms currently amount to 45.6m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) a year – about 10% of the total. Energy and transport are 24% and 27%, respectively. However, there are two points worth making.
First, the make-up of farm emissions is different from other sectors: carbon takes a backseat, with methane accounting for 56% of emissions from agriculture in 2017 (47% of total agriculture emissions were from the digestive process of livestock) and nitrous oxide another 31%. Reducing these gases is “more difficult”, according to the NFU, because “they result from complex and imperfectly understood natural soil and animal microbial processes” (those belching animals).
A debate about the weighting these gases receive in emission figures is also bubbling up. While some scientists highlight that these are extreme greenhouse gases and deserve a large weighting in calculations, another school of thought argues that their effects are easier to reverse because they don’t remain in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide. “To a certain extent, the debate going forward is going to be about weighting GHGs or identifying GHGs, and how you carbon account and measure the carbon embedded in food,” Smith says.
Which brings us to the second point: the footprint of food actually consumed in the UK is likely to be far higher, given that we import 48% of our food (and rising). A 2010 study by WWF-UK and the Food Climate Resource Network, for example, found that the food we eat could account for 30% of the country’s carbon footprint. How do you reduce this, though? “We need to find ways of reducing carbon in the way we produce food, sequester more carbon on farms and contribute more to the bioeconomy,” says Smith.
Reaching net zero
These are the three strands of the NFU’s new vision for reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 2040. Published in September, the 12-page plan suggests that the sector could reduce or remove those 45.6m tonnes of CO2e in just two decades.
More efficient production will deliver 11.5m tonnes of savings, while farmland storage of carbon can slash another nine million tonnes. The biggest chunk – 26m tonnes – would come from boosting renewable energy and the bioeconomy: producing bioenergy from crops and organic matter and capturing the carbon could save 22m tonnes alone. Do all that, and reward farmers accordingly, and there would be no need to cut back on the bacon sandwiches. The right policies and financial packages would need to be in place, though – and the public would have to buy into low impact food, too.
NGOs have been quick to pan the plan, given that it avoids the large cow in the room: meat and dairy consumption. Smith, however, claims politicians like it: “They like the idea of an industry stepping up with ideas about how climate change can be resolved or addressed.”
None of this will be achieved overnight, but farmers need to up their game: there has been no progress on reducing farm emissions since 2008. A target set in 2013 to plant 5,000 hectares of trees every year has also proved difficult: England managed just 1,420 hectares in the year to March 2019, according to the Woodland Trust, although Scotland’s 11,200 hectares did bump UK levels up to their highest in a decade. Smith has issues with both these targets.
“We are happy with trees on farmland as long as it doesn’t significantly curtail production,” he says. Otherwise “you’ll just offshore the carbon and they will continue ripping down the Amazon rainforest”. Turning the dial down on UK production would be folly, he insists, especially given the potential food security risks. How exposed to the vagaries of world food markets do we want to be, given political chaos and a changing climate?
Smith’s claim to fame is that he farms the driest spot in the British Isles and most of his farm is below sea level: “You could say I am on the frontline of climate change.” He is also ready to defend his members. “Politicians, voters and opinion-formers needed to be reminded that you shouldn’t take food production for granted. Political advocacy is what drew me to this role.”
David Burrows is a freelance journalist.