No matter which way you turned at COP26 there were references to the critical role that both agriculture and land managers in general need to pay in addressing the climate crisis, writes Miriam Habtesellasie.
Agriculture, specifically climate-resilient, sustainable agriculture was named as one of the 5 Glasgow breakthroughs. Biden’s new Aim4C initiative led by US and UAE – which focuses on accelerating innovation in sustainable agriculture – received backing from more than 30 countries. And, a new US-EU Global Methane Pledge to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030 was backed by over 100 countries including the UK, France and Germany.
While the latter doesn’t explicitly mention belching cows, figures from the IEA’s 2020 methane tracker make it clear that the second highest source of global annual methane emissions comes from agriculture (145 million tonnes out of a total of 570 million tonnes).
It’s also inevitable that world leaders’ pledge to 'halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030’ will have to address the problem of deforestation caused by soy crops planted for animal feed.
Agroecology and nature-based solutions
Farming union The Landworkers' Alliance also spoke out in the first week of COP26 arguing that a shift towards agroecology is essential to preserving our planet.
At the climate summit the union's head of policy and campaigns, Jyoti Fernandes, said:
“Governments need to realise that our food, farming and land-use systems must be addressed if we are to avoid climate chaos and global hunger.
"We’re mobilising at COP26 to show that alternatives to the destructive, polluting and high-emission dominant farming models do exist – and to promote agroecological farming and sustainable forestry as real solutions to the climate crisis.”
A briefing from the Sustainable Food Trust entitled What role for livestock in climate-friendly farming? published in the first week of COP also didn’t pull any punches when it surmised that ‘industrial livestock systems are absolutely part of the problem, contributing to climate change, biodiversity decline, poor animal welfare and human health issues’.
The above also noted, more positively, that ‘pasture-based livestock, such as cattle and sheep, can work in harmony with nature, helping restore soil health and biodiversity, whilst producing nutrient dense food’.
Day 6 of COP was also dedicated to Nature, specifically to ‘ensuring the importance of nature and sustainable land use are part of global action on climate change and a clean, green recovery’.
And in a session entitled Unlocking the Nature/Net Zero Balance the question ‘how do we bring farming and nature closer together as a key to unlocking the nature/net-zero challenge?’ was posed by an audience member.
Responding, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s (WWT) director of conservation James Robinson, argued that the key to the above was facilitating constructive conversations between both landowners and local communities.
Expanding on the latter he said it was important to work with communities from a "very early stage... to make sure that they are comfortable and understand that actually what's being produced [nature-based solutions] is incredibly valuable to them...and something that they can own and be proud of into the future.”
For the former he argued that constructive consultations on how to make incentives for nature-based solutions work so that landowners can continue to get a return from their land was essential as “that's the very nature of how they make their living”.
Next steps for agriculture
The National Farmers Union’s report Our Journey to Net Zero Farming’s 2040 Goal outlines that there is ‘no single answer’ to how farming will deliver net zero, though it outlines that the journey will fall under three broad areas:
- Improving resource use efficiency of farming across all sectors;
- Increasing on-farm carbon storage in vegetation and soil;
- Boosting production of land-based renewable energy, including bioenergy for processes coupled to carbon capture, use and storage, to generate credits for GHG emissions avoided and GHG removal
So, what’s being done to support the above? Defra’s update to the Agricultural Transition Plan touches on some of it, including initiatives such as the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme and the reduction of GHG. The Catchment Sensitive Farming programme also includes grants for precision farming tools that reduce the use of fertilisers and better protect the soil, which ticks the boxes for resource efficiency.
Ultimately, like many other elements of mobilising climate action and the race towards net zero it’s about a several parties working together to achieve a shared outcome. And while there may be willingness from farmers and landowners to do their bit for the planet, the fact that financial and practical support is needed to get them there can’t be overlooked.