Net zero can help farmers 'build a better, climate smart business' Batters tells BusinessGreen, but major challenges lie ahead
When the National Farmers Union announced its ambition to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions across the industry by 2040, it took many by surprise.
After all, this was back in January 2019, a full six months before the UK became the first major economy in the world to legislate to deliver net zero emissions, setting a target date for full decarbonisation that falls a full decade later than the NFU's.
It also marked a significant uptick in ambition for an industry which accounts for around 10 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and which, unfairly or otherwise, had developed something of a reputation among environmental campaigners for failing to scale up some pretty patchy emission reduction efforts. The sector had previously set its sights on delivering some fairly modest emissions reductions by the early 2020s, and had made little if any progress in reducing its 5.7 million tonnes of annual emissions since 2008. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a body closely associated with both rural 'small c conservatism' and big agri-business interests unveiled one of the world's most ambitious net zero targets.
"At the time there was a lot of surprise," NFU president Minette Batters of the 2040 net zero announcement, which she made at a farming conference in Oxford last year. "I think a lot of people - a lot of NGOs - were very surprised. Michael Gove [then Environment Secretary] was with me, as he'd done the keynote speech. I said to him 'what do you think?' and he said 'I think you're really brave'. But I didn't see it like that at all, because I think it's the challenge of our time, and I see us as a solution."
It is a characteristically bullish statement from Batters, who has overseen a major gear shift in climate ambition since she was elected the NFU's first woman president in the trade body's 100-year-plus history in 2018. Over the past two years the Wiltshire farmer, who has just won another two-year term at the helm of the trade body, has been deeply engaged in the debate about what the net zero transition means for British farmers, land-use, and diets. It's true that debate hasn't always been amicable, thanks in part to plant-based diets suddenly becoming a mainstream concern alongside school climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests, which has at times thrust farmers into the middle of a wider ongoing culture war. But even if there are differing opinions over precisely what role UK livestock farming should play in a future net zero society, it is abundantly clear Batters and her trade association recognise the threat both climatic and consumer behaviour changes poses to the agricultural sector and the planet as a whole, as well as the scale of the challenge ahead if the industry is to respond to these changes.
Climate change is the challenge of our time, and I see us as a solution.
"I think farming is going to have to change, and people will either embrace that change - and they need to - or resist it," she tells BusinessGreen in early March, just before the coronavirus lockdown was imposed. "We have to be absolutely relevant to our market place, so I think farmers have to change."
Batters is keen to emphasise that the farming sector has not been backed into a corner on climate action, but rather it is something the NFU is actively embracing. While she believes delivering net zero farming by 2040 would be a "phenomenal achievement", she also sees it as a feasible goal that would hugely benefit the industry, as well as the UK as a whole, due in part to farming's potential to provide climate resilience and carbon capture services.
"It's absolutely remarkable," she says of the NFU's 2040 target. "No other industry can even say that it can do that within its full structure, and we can. The exciting thing about climate change and delivering on net zero is that it all leads to building a better business. These are not compromises. This is about building a better, climate smart business. I think that's very exciting."
Changing consumer diets
Precisely how the agriculture sector delivers net zero emissions within 20 years, however, remains a major bone of contention in some critical areas, most obviously livestock and land use. The NFU remains resolute that UK farmers do not need to reduce meat and crop production in order to decarbonise, arguing that a combination of more efficient farming methods and livestock production, as well as technology and biocrops, offers a credible solution. And if British consumers opt to eat less meat and dairy, British farmers should then export their high quality produce elsewhere, rather than cut production.
But the UK government's independent advisory body the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) takes a rather different view. Last year CCC chief executive Chris Stark told BusinessGreen it would be "very, very difficult" for the UK farming sector to achieve net zero by 2040 if current levels of meat production continue, while adding there were "no easy answers" for decarbonising agriculture.
The CCC then released a report setting out its net zero policy recommendations for land use in the UK, which concluded consumption of beef, lamb, and dairy would need to fall by a fifth by 2050. Agriculture would need to shift some of its focus away from rearing livestock towards tree planting, peatland restoration, improving soil quality, flood protection, and growing crops for bioenergy, it said, with 30,000-50,000 hectares of afforestation required every year to help capture carbon. The CCC was, in short, calling for a transformation in how land is used and managed in the UK, with major implications for the farming sector. Some notable environmental campaigners argued even these drastic proposed changes were too conservative and much larger falls in meat consumption were required to enable the rewilding and tree planting needed to deliver net zero emissions.
For its part, the NFU gave the CCC's report a cautious welcome, of sorts, agreeing on the need to scale up afforestation, boost soil quality, and natural flood defences. But it insists 65 per cent of British land is only suitable for livestock grazing, that plant-based products are not necessarily any better for the environment, and that consumers should continue to support British livestock production.
If you just talk about taking meat out of the diet, I don't think it explains the underlying issues.
Batters concedes there is "a big difference of opinion" between the NFU and the CCC over future meat and dairy production in the UK. She further argues there is "a big scientific difference of opinion" on the issue, citing as an example work by Professor Michael Lee from Rothamsted Research, who has argued livestock is unfairly castigated by the anti-meat lobby for its greenhouse gas impact, and in fact plays a key role in maintaining soil health.
"If you remove livestock from the system, you then become reliant on chemical fertilisers," she contends. "That rotation of grass and livestock grazing, and the muck that they put back into the soil, is what sustains all biodiversity. So I think it's about a balanced approach."
The biggest axe Batters has to grid, though, is with the way the debate over the future of farming is being conducted. She believes "a lot of" the CCC's analysis on achieving net zero land use and farming is correct, detailed, and very comprehensive, but that once its recommendations are released to the public the reaction focuses too heavily on changes to diets and little else.
"We nearly always end up talking about dietary change and meat," she reflects. "And actually, if we talked about many other aspects of delivering on climate change, it's much broader than what is in your diet. If we could get people back to the raw ingredients, and eating better, then actually that should be the route. But it just ends up in a polarised, binary approach focused on moving to a plant-based diet… You've got to be careful how you do these things, and it's not just as simple as saying we only need to eat less meat. We all need to eat a more sustainable diet."
So does she believe British people do not need to reduce their meat consumption in order to help tackle climate change?
"I think diets here will evolve and you've only got to look at the obesity numbers to realise that our diet is shot to pieces," Batters responds. "But I suppose the bottom line is that what we are not consuming here we should be able to export to other parts of the world where there is a desire and a need and a market for high quality, sustainably produced meat and dairy products. I think it's about the quality and I think it's about getting people back to the raw ingredients and natural whole foods… If you just talk about taking meat out of the diet, I don't think it explains the underlying issues."
Meat alternatives and plant-based proteins
Many, including the CCC, doubt whether a small island like the UK has the capacity to plant tens of thousands of hectares of forests, grow reams more biofuel crops, increase fruit and veg production, and better manage soil and land to boost flood protection and biodiversity, all while maintaining current levels of land for livestock. But Batters is adamant it is possible, and blames the burgeoning alternative proteins industry for fanning the flames of the debate over meat and climate change. "I think what is wholly wrong at the moment is people talk about plant-based as being 'sustainable', and meat as being in many cases 'unsustainable'," she explains. "But you can have just as many, if not more, examples of unsustainable plant-based produce." She highlights the huge amounts of water required to produce almond milk, as well as the environmental damage associated with the global market for avocados, palm oil, and soya.
"You've got to look at the sustainability of the products," she continues. "I think many are falsely driving this [agenda] - one is the huge investment going into Silicon Valley for plant-based, lab meat, and synthetic meat that is pushing this agenda. I also think a lot of food businesses are saying plant-based is a great way to make money, because these are much cheaper ingredients, and you can badge yourself as being the saviour of the planet. For the consumer it's become really, really confusing. I think it's a very corruptive message, actually."
It is clear there are fissures in policy and strategy between the NFU and the UK's top climate policy advisors that will need bridging. After all, the only way for the UK as a whole to deliver net zero is through a holistic, carefully planned approach that sees all sectors pulling their weight, and in some cases working together to get there. If one sector fails to deliver anticipated levels of emissions reduction, it threatens to throw the entire net zero transition out of kilter. But if there are some disagreements between the NFU and climate campaigners on some key green issues, there is a great deal of common ground to be found on another front: Brexit.
Firstly, farmers, politicians, and environmentalists are on the one hand broadly glad to be doing away with the EU's Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), which has for decades paid out subsidies to landowners with limited environmental conditions. Farming is therefore one of the main policy areas the government could legitimately claim to "take back control" after Brexit, and it has set out plans for a new domestic subsidy regime promising to reward farmers for 'public goods' services, such as tree planting, flood protection, and boosting soil quality, all of which deliver climate mitigation and sequestration benefits. It remains to be seen quite how the new system will look in practice as it is gradually phased in over the next seven years, but most stakeholders seem to back the principles behind the system and its potential to incentivise the roll out of natural carbon capture solutions.
However, with the full details of the regime still not having emerged, Batters cautions that "we all have concerns about delivery" and that in view of changing government priorities from election to election, subsidy payments "should only ever be an extension of a successful business, rather than people looking at it as the sole source of income".
We have to make sure that we do not import food that would be illegal for our farmers to produce here.
The even more immediate concern for the farming industry centres on the UK's putative trade deals with the EU and the US, where the debate over environmental and food standards has emerged as a major sticking point. The government has repeatedly argued that it will not water down UK environmental standards and remains committed to the UK delivering 'world-leading' standards in the coming years. However, the latest row between Brussels and Number 10 again centred on the UK's refusal to sign up to 'level playing field' provisions, while the start of US trade talks has further stoked fears the UK could soon welcome imports of chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef.
From the start of the Brexit negotiations a coalition of environmentalists, consumers, and farmers has been desperate to avoid the UK market becoming flooded with lower standard products and processes that undercut British producers, but for all the warm words from Ministers they have so far failed to secure a binding commitment from the government to guard against regulatory rollback and increased competition from lower quality imports. With the Brexit transition period set to finish at the end of the year and the government ruling out an extension, campaigners and farmers clearly still have a major fight ahead of them, especially after MPs voted down an amendment to the Agriculture Bill during its third reading in Parliament last week that would have guaranteed high standards for food and drink entering the country from next year. Former Trade Secretary Liam Fox argued such a provision would effectively kill off the prospect of a trade deal with the US or other countries, but Batters maintains that there is a real risk that farmers here could end up being undercut by imports that are produced to standards that simply would not be allowed in the UK.
"This is really going to test the moral compass of government because there is a clear manifesto commitment on animal welfare and environmental protection," says Batters, citing how senior Ministers such as Lord Goldsmith and Michael Gove have publicly underscored their commitment to safeguarding standards. "We have to make sure that we do not import food that would be illegal for our farmers to produce here."
Batters laments that agriculture "is always the last chapter in any trade deal", but argues that the issue is a critical one not just for farmers or what appears on supermarket shelves, but for the entire country. If domestic environmental, food and animal welfare standards are undermined, she argues it would severely harm British farming businesses, and therefore seriously hamper the industry's ability to deliver on its 2040 net zero promise. "One of the real pluses is that it has bought environmentalists, consumers and farmers together," she says. "I think environmentalists really understand that if we don't get the food standards bit right, we can never deliver more for the environment."
"It's all about getting Brexit right," she continues. "It's all about making sure standards are not compromised, and if we can win that, then we can get on and deliver everything else."
With Brexit challenges, changing consumer diets, pressure from climate campaigners, and a total overhaul of their businesses all in the pipeline - even before you consider the massive challenges presented by the coronavirus crisis - it has been and will be for the foreseeable a tumultuous period for British farmers. But such disruptive forces provide all the more reason to strive for net zero emissions, says Batters. "I think farmers have felt pretty bruised by what has happened, and that's why we put the ambition down for net zero - to really take ownership of this agenda."
Lest we forget, UK farmers are already among the most efficient in the world in terms of production, with some of the strictest standards, too. But to stand a chance of achieving the NFU's vision of maintaining current levels of food and livestock production while adding afforestation and bioenergy to the mix on Britain's limited land mass, farmers must become yet more efficient and climate-savvy still. It may not be a vision all agree is feasible, but Batters insists the NFU is fully committed to delivering on its net zero goal and is optimistic the transition can be delivered.
"We're going through what I would call 'bumps in the road' at the moment that Brexit does not help with, but I think tomorrow's consumer is going to be climate savvy," predicts Batters. "They are going to want to know how their clothes are made; they are going to care far more about plastics than my generation have done; and they're going to want sustainable living whereby we're making better use of our animal products - things like wool, straw, insulation, miscanthus - all those things that naturally biodegrade, rather than synthetics that don't."
It is, if nothing else, an extraordinary time to be leading the farming industry. "All of that is exciting - we're not there yet by a long way, as there isn't yet the recognition," she says. "But it's very clear that we've got to get back to more sustainable lives."
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