Doing our bit on climate change

The Climate Change Committee and Greener Henley are great initiatives and ones that I fully back. However, it seems to me that lately they have been hijacked by those with an ‘agenda’. The Henley Standard and in particular the excellent letters page, has recently been filled with arguments about why we should or should not all become vegans. The general theme of the pro argument is that animal agriculture is solely responsible for climate change. The contra argument is that people should have a choice as to what they eat and which diet is best for them. These things are never black and white and whilst agriculture in the UK contributes 11% of greenhouse gases in total, other sectors are much higher. The big hitters are transport at 24%, energy supply 21%, business 18% and residential at 16%. It seems that it is politically prudent not to ask people to give up their desire to fly on airplanes, but instead to eat less red meat. Farming is very diverse and is made up of many different businesses, which other than the National Farmers Union (NFU) and The Country Landowners Association (CLA) don’t have a very loud voice. On the other hand, the oil industry, which had more delegates than any other single entity at the last COP meeting, has a huge influence.

Despite all of this, we in farming do have a role to play. Methane is the gas that hits the headlines and cows seem to get all the blame. After carbon dioxide methane is the second most important greenhouse gas. It is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas and oil. In agriculture it is a by-product of ruminant livestock. Other land uses that contribute are ponds, lakes and rivers, also the decay of all organic matter and waste including landfill tips, and sewage. There are other gases to consider too such as nitrous oxide, which I have addressed here before.

I particularly want to look at methane, as that is what is driving some of these arguments. I absolutely don’t have an issue with which diet people choose and that is the crux of the matter, it’s your choice. Do you have fewer holidays abroad, cycle to work or eat less red meat? All of these will help. In UK farming we are looking at how we grow our crops and rear livestock to ensure that through better techniques we reduce our emissions, whilst still providing safe and healthy food and caring for the environment. We are also stewards of a massive carbon sink in the crops, grass and trees that we grow. Feeding and breeding are the just two of the strands that livestock farmers are pursuing to help reduce methane, whilst in cropping we are moving much less soil and reducing our reliance on manufactured chemicals. As farmers, our very existence relies on the weather we get and changes in the climate will greatly affect our businesses.

I recently spent a couple of useful days at the NFU’s annual conference in Birmingham. Think political conference, but checked shirts and tweed jackets. Various political dignitaries came and spoke to us including Sir Kier Starmer, The Prime Minister by video and two ministers from DEFRA. In other sessions we discussed the impacts of both climate change and leaving the EU on our farms and future government support. Sustainability was top of the agenda and we recognise that we need to continue to address this matter in cooperation with the wider food chain and the government. The NFU has a net zero policy for all of farming to reach by 2040. We, like other farmers, have started on this route. Last year I undertook a carbon audit for our farm which will give us a baseline to work from.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, it dried out in the first half of February, the flood waters from the Thames receded and a kind of false spring descended upon us. We finished our winter jobs such as cutting the miles of roadside hedges on the estate, the tractors were washed off and the machines calibrated and serviced. Let the mayhem of spring work begin.

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