IPCC report: Agriculture can be part of the solution rather than the problem

Business Green

Published: 22nd October 2018

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The IPCC report has put the world on notice. We have limited time left to prevent climate breakdown. Its Summary for Policymakers suggests a range of mitigation strategies to achieve the net emissions reductions that would be required to follow a pathway limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) from the atmosphere is seen as a key strategy, and this removal will in part need to be achieved through agriculture, forestry and other land use. Therefore changing the way we use land and produce food is key to tackling climate change.

Our soils have an extraordinary capacity to absorb and hold carbon if land is farmed and used in the right ways. We can turn the sector from a major greenhouse gas emitter to an important carbon sink.  

A recent study, which looked at farming systems and pasture trials, claimed we could capture up to 100 per cent of current annual carbon emissions through ‘Regenerative Organic Agriculture‘. This form of farming involves practices that work to maximise carbon fixation while minimising the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil.

As so often when it comes to mitigation against climate change, there are benefits beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Using organic farming practices improves soil quality, biodiversity and animal welfare into the bargain. It is also a low-cost carbon capture solution, not an expensive techno-fix. 

The IPCC report also makes clear that we must stop ripping up our forests to make way for agriculture. Instead we need to plant more trees and replace those that have been rem oved. In an agricultural context this means a move towards agro-forestry where farming incorporates the growing of trees.

So over the next 20 years we need to make organic and sustainable farming methods the norm. But it is clear that transforming our food and farming sectors so they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem requires political will. In Europe the Common Agriculture Policy and in the UK the Agriculture Bill must drive the transition towards organic and sustainable farming practices.  

There is another important shift that needs to take place in the farming sector, and it is one where consumers can play their part. Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock are estimated to account for around 15 per cent of the global total. So alongside a transition in land use and farming methods we need to consume less meat and dairy and replace these with plant-based protein crops. 

The UK climate provides the perfect conditions for growing plant protein – largely peas and beans – for direct human consumption. Despite having successfully done this for centuries, the UK currently only assigns around 16 per cent of agricultural land to the growing of protein crops and much of this is fed to cattle. Yet growing more of these crops would have significant benefits for farmers and consumers alike. For consumers, as well as being a more affordable source of protein than meat, there are many health benefits of protein crops. For farmers, protein crops have the ability to take nitrogen from the air and capture it in soil, reducing the need for expensive and environmentally damaging nitrogen fertilisers.

Transforming food production and consumption is an essential ingredient in a set of strategies for tackling climate change. We just need the right economic incentives and political will to make it happen.