How farmers can cut emissions | FT Climate Capital
Agriculture and food account for about a quarter of all climate change-inducing greenhouse gas emissions. And with production methods becoming increasingly intensive, farmers are under scrutiny like never before. Now farming faces a big question: can it become more environmentally sustainable while continuing to feed a growing global population?
Reported by Attracta Mooney; Filmed and edited by Richard Topping
You can enable subtitles (captions) in the video player
ATTRACTA MOONEY: This is County Offaly, Ireland, about 90 minutes outside of Dublin. And I'm here on my family's farm. I grew up here, as did my father, my grandfather, my great-grandmother, and generations before them.
Irish farms are often passed down family lines. But farming is not just a historical and emotional significance. It is also a key economic driver. About 1 in 10 people work in agriculture or food production in Ireland, but farming has a big problem-- agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
The agrifood sector accounts for just under 40% of Ireland's climate change-inducing emissions. Last year, the government set a legally binding target to cut those emissions by 25% by 2030. Now, there is talk of culling cattle, turning farms organic, ditching synthetic fertilisers, and reclaiming and rewilding land. All of this is putting farmers under pressure.
Some farmers feel that they're under attack. Do you think that's fair?
PIPPA HACKETT: I don't think we want to be in the situation where farmers feel under attack, because I don't think that's really useful to anyone. We need to listen to farmers, and farmers maybe need to listen to the policymakers. And we need a much more, I suppose, aligned approach. We ultimately want Irish farming to become more sustainable.
BRIAN RUSHE: I think every farmer would accept that agriculture as a part of our emissions profile accounts for quite a lot. The 25% represents a huge challenge to farming in Ireland, and it's transformative if we were to achieve it. The farmers want to reduce emissions, will reduce emissions, but there is a huge amount of farmers in a place where they need a lot of support to do it.
There's about 130,000 farmers every year in Ireland apply for what we call a BPS, or a basic payment. So that gives an indication of the amount of farms in the country. So if we're talking about reducing numbers, we're talking about 130,000 individual farm businesses.
The big challenge for us is that group that don't regularly engage with research, don't regularly engage with advisory-- and there's a huge challenge for us-- is to reach them.
GERARD PARDY: So we're farming about 290 cows, on maybe 400 acres. We inherited this farm from my father in '94. They've been here since the 1700s. We live in the environment every day. We see nature every day. If we were down here at night, there's deer, there's hares, barn owls flying across.
Like all the industries, farming needs to get its act together. And we are very much dependent on science to show us the way of what we can do to make the thing better. We need the farming community to come on board, but I can't speak for the whole farming community. But certainly, for anyone that I would know in my circle, they are on board with it.
ATTRACTA MOONEY: But it's not just Ireland that has to tackle its agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Across Europe, every country will have to address the environmental impact of farming under the EU's Green Deal.
The Green Deal is the European Union's main framework to tackle climate change. And it includes a raft of measures aimed at making agriculture greener. But farmers have already pushed back, with tractors piling into Brussels and Strasbourg in protest.
NORBERT LINS: With the Green Deal, European Union took the right approach to achieve a more sustainable and more resilient agriculture in the future. I think it's a very good idea, but we have to have an holistic approach on that.
ATTRACTA MOONEY: Agriculture accounts for about 11% of the EU's greenhouse gas emissions. And that number has barely budged over the past two decades. Do you think we can bring that number down, and why is it so sticky?
NORBERT LINS: When we look at the numbers, we saw that they are decreasing in the last years. But you are right they did not decrease a lot. But this is, on the one hand, again, a question of calculation. So I question this calculation of methane emission. And I think you are aware that the methane emissions are more or less 50% of the agriculture emissions in the European Union.
ATTRACTA MOONEY: It's not just European farmers that have pushed back. Around the world, there's been a backlash from farmers, including the US's powerful farming lobby, over environmental measures as countries look to tackle global warming. While the release of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels is the biggest contributor to climate change, accounting for about 3/4 of greenhouse gas emissions, about 1/4 of the world's emissions are from agriculture and food production. And countries such as China, the US, and Brazil are among the biggest emitters of agricultural emissions.
JOHN LYNCH: Carbon dioxide is not the primary greenhouse gas that we're concerned about from agriculture. So it's mainly methane and nitrous oxide. Cattle and sheep, and rice production release methane as a byproduct. Then nitrous oxide is even stronger than methane as a greenhouse gas.
It's mainly from fertiliser application. We're applying nitrogen fertilisers, synthetic or organic nitrogen fertilisers, and not all of that nitrogen is taken up by the plants. Some of it also is lost in a gaseous form in nitrous oxide.
HAYDEN MONTGOMERY: You can observe different levels of emissions associated with different cattle production systems or rice production systems. And that's reflective of the climatic conditions in those places, as well as the management practises being employed in those places. Ultimately, globally, we need to have global methane emissions reduced. That might mean intensification in some places, avoidance of certain practises in another, or avoidance of production in another.
ATTRACTA MOONEY: So Hayden, how important is methane when it comes to climate change?
HAYDEN MONTGOMERY: Methane matters, because as a greenhouse gas, it is very effective at trapping heat from the sun within the Earth's atmosphere. It also provides us an opportunity of sorts, because the lifetime of methane in the atmosphere is significantly shorter than that of CO2, for example.
So we estimate a half-life of methane in the atmosphere of about 10 to 12 years. By reducing methane, we actually have a much more immediate effect on the current warming that is occurring on the planet. So it gives us the opportunity of slowing the rate of climate change.
JOHN LYNCH: Any methane that we emitted more than a few decades ago is no longer having a significant climatic effect. So if we stopped emitting all methane today, we would actually bring the temperature down, because we would no longer have the warming effect from those methane emissions. However, if we do that at the expense of reducing CO2, then we've just kind of kicked the can a bit further down the road.
ATTRACTA MOONEY: We've talked about how agriculture contributes to global warming. But how is it affected by climate change?
JOHN LYNCH: So we have crop damage, risks to livestock health, animals dying as we get these temperature extremes, and then we have increased risk of storm events and other things like that, that will also be doing damage.
NORBERT LINS: The agriculture sector is much more a victim of climate change than responsible for that.
HAYDEN MONTGOMERY: Climate change is going to significantly affect crop yields, in particular, some of the major staple crops, and in particular, in semi-arid and tropical countries where the effects of climate change are going to be felt hardest in terms of the impact on crop yield.
ALVARO LARIO: Because of floods, droughts, we are seeing that this results in lower food production, lower yields, higher food prices. So the reality is that climate change is actually estimated to reduce future crop yields by up to a quarter to the end of the century.
And case studies that we have done in several African countries estimate that actually, it can even affect up to 80% of crop yields in certain cash crops. So the type of populations we work with in the rural areas-- actually, they are not the key contributors to climate change, but they are being massively affected.
ATTRACTA MOONEY: It all sounds very disheartening. But is there hope on the horizon?
JOHN LYNCH: I think it's quite an exciting time to be looking at agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, because there's lots of research coming through now about specific interventions we can do to reduce them.
ALVARO LARIO: The solutions relate to switching to drought-tolerant crops. They relate to climate-adapted irrigation systems, water management, managing soils, building early warning systems, diversifying crops.
HAYDEN MONTGOMERY: The options include feed additives that can be added to the diet to reduce methane. There's also opportunities to look at the variability between animals. Different animals emit more or less methane, and that's a consequence of their genetics. That's an opportunity to select animals for those characteristics.
BRIAN RUSHE: Ireland is going to be the first country in the world to have their national herd genotyped. So we'll have a genetic marker on every cow, so we'll be able to zone in on individual animals that are producing less meat in and breed from those animals and get rid of the other ones that aren't.
PIPPA HACKETT: Quicker finishing time is one thing. So if the animals are here for less time, that will reduce the emissions from that animal, if you like.
BRIAN RUSHE: Better use of slurry through the use of low-emission slurry-spreading equipment, again, reducing the emissions attached to slurry spreading. We also want to reduce fertiliser use overall, introducing clover into our swards, more diverse pastures as well. That's replacing chemical nitrogen.
GERARD PARDY: 99% of the farm now is sewn to clover. 75% of the farm has got no nitrogen in the last two years and no artificial nitrogen. The clover is producing the nitrogen. We're following the research, so it's not like I made up all this. I'd say if we could come up with a vaccine for COVID in a couple of years, if there was enough brains and thought put to it, we could solve this.
ATTRACTA MOONEY: Across the world, many farmers are already taking action, using greener energy, measuring emissions, and monitoring pollution. But is there an easier answer?
Do we just need to stop eating so much meat?
HAYDEN MONTGOMERY: I don't think there's a need for everyone to stop eating meat entirely, but I think certainly, where there's overconsumption, that would be desirable.
JOHN LYNCH: We do also need systemic shifts as well. So if we had a whole population of the whole world consuming the type of diet that we do in the UK, it simply wouldn't be sustainable in terms of the climate or the land area that's required.
Even within the overall objectives within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, it's flagged up that whatever climate mitigation and adaptation is done, it can't compromise food security. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including from agriculture. But that can't come at the expense of half of the world starving.
ALVARO LARIO: Climate is already a key driver of hunger, and we need to make sure that we are also investing in those adaptation solutions in order to make sure that they are locally adapted and that they happen right now.
PIPPA HACKETT: I think if we had a country with no animals and just vegetable growing and grain growing everywhere, you might remove the methane, but it would be very hard to grow all of that without synthetic inputs. And you'd need nearly all synthetic inputs, because you wouldn't have the animals cycling the nutrients and the manures that you get from animals, which help in the whole system of farming here.
BRIAN RUSHE: If you remove x thousand cows out of the system, and those cows are producing a product that in turn is sold, it's going to have an economic impact. A 100-cow dairy farm is viable at 100 cows. But if you took away the cows and plant a tillage on that farm, it's no longer a viable farm. So when we talk about sustainability-- and what frustrates farmers sometimes is that the economic and social sustainability pillars are being left behind.
GERARD PARDY: We're able to produce milk with a lower carbon footprint and practically anywhere on the planet. If we reduced, it just basically transfers. This carbon leakage is just going somewhere that can't do it as efficiently.
NORBERT LINS: In the past, we had too much animals in the European Union. But with the current number, we are more or less self sufficiency in the European Union. This means that there is a risk when the numbers would go even more down, that we would import more and more meat from other parts of the world, in particular from South America. This could have a huge impact on ecosystems in third countries-- for example, in Brazil or Argentina.
We are too much focused only on the agriculture sector and what they have to reduce. That's not wrong. We have to achieve that. But on the other hand, we have to look at the consumer. What's their behaviour, and what's their-- what's their demand?
BRIAN RUSHE: Farmers are very aware of the impact they have on the environment and the reductions that they have to make. But sometimes I have to ask myself, are other people along the supply chain as aware? And one of the big challenges I see around the Green Deal-- it will impose a cost at farm level that I have yet to see a consumer willing to pay for.
I think people want to see rural Ireland populated by family farm business units. In order to preserve that, we do need to support those farms.
PIPPA HACKETT: And while that's a massive challenge, I think there's a massive opportunity there. Let's be a leader in this. Let's show how we have turned the ship around in Ireland.
NORBERT LINS: They are helping in the fight against climate change with the storage of carbon in the fields, in the forests, in grassland. And these things, they have to be part of the calculation.
GERARD PARDY: We can't farm like our grandfathers farmed. They would have had three cows and a pig, which isn't the ideal. If you want to farm and live from the farm, it takes scale. And we have to learn, through science again, how to do that sustainably.
Our heart and soul goes into putting that there, whether it's the woman in China buying baby powder, or the baby in the middle of London buying a piece of cheese. It's a little bit of all. It's not just about money.
Nobody really owns land. We're only custodians of it. And we look after it and we try to hand it on to the next generation in a better condition than we got it. And that's sort of the moral obligation we have to the Earth.