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We must look to scientific innovation in agriculture to deliver Net Zero

Julian Sturdy MP

September 2022

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

Agriculture is possibly unique as a sector of the economy in its relationship with climate change.

 

As an industry it is at the same time both an emitter and a sequesterer of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and, as farmers around the world hit by drought conditions this year know only too well, it is a sector intimately and directly impacted by the effects of a changing climate.

 

Of course, every sector must play its part in meeting our legally binding commitment to Net Zero by 2050. Agriculture, responsible for around 10% of the UK’s total GHG emissions, is no exception.

 

But action to reduce emissions from agriculture here in the UK cannot be taken in isolation from the rest of the world. The recent shocks to food and energy markets from the war in Ukraine have provided a stark reminder of the precarious balance between global food supply and demand.    

    

The action we take to curb an escalating climate crisis, while at the same time preventing biodiversity loss and protecting finite natural resources of land, energy and water, must also address the food needs of a rapidly expanding global population.

 

The UK’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has estimated that the world needs to increase food production and availability by up to 70% by 2050 to keep pace.

 

That is why action to reduce emissions must go hand in hand with improvements in agricultural productivity. We cannot introduce production-limiting measures to reduce emissions here which at the same time increase our food import requirements.

 

Such an approach would simply off-shore our food system impacts, and may disproportionately affect parts of the world more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.   

 

In other European countries, however, there are worrying signs that production-limiting measures are being planned to curb emissions from the agriculture sector.

 

Farmers in the Republic of Ireland, for example, have protested against the Government’s Climate Action Plan to reduce GHG emissions by up to 30% by 2030, which includes measures to limit fertiliser use and ‘stabilise’ herd numbers. 

 

In June, the Dutch Government announced plans to halve emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from the country’s livestock farms by 2030, signalling an “unavoidable transition” for agriculture. Reports suggest that the target will mean a 30% reduction in overall livestock numbers, and experts say many farms will be forced to shut down. Farmers in the Netherlands are asking the government to rethink the plan before it becomes law later this year.

 

A common complaint is that farmers are being ‘scapegoated’ in the drive to reduce GHG emissions, with a suggestion that that agriculture is often seen as a soft target for climate action.

 

Indeed, Defra chief scientist Professor Gideon Henderson referred to ruminant livestock as the ‘low hanging fruit’ for short-term GHG reductions when he spoke to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, of which I am the current chair, in January this year.

 

However, Professor Henderson’s comments came just a few weeks before the European Commission announced the approval of the feed additive Bovaer, which has been shown to consistently reduce methane emissions by 30% in dairy cattle and by up to 90% in beef cattle.

 

Other innovations, such as more digestible grass and forage crop varieties, advanced breeding techniques and the uptake of better livestock genetics, as well as precision monitoring of herd health, offer scope for further reductions.

 

During Parliamentary questions recently I asked the Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP, President of the COP 26 climate change conference, if he agreed that net zero should be achieved by rolling-out low carbon technology and scientific solutions, rather than measures which dampen economic growth and depress living standards.

 

Encouragingly, Alok Sharma replied that this was “absolutely right. Green technologies and innovations are what is going to help us achieve the net zero target.” He referred to gene editing, which could enable more food to be produced from crops and animals using fewer resources, as a good example of this.

 

I believe Ministers are right to support action on climate change which looks to science and innovation rather than arbitrary targets or restrictions on economic activity.

 

That’s why All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture recently launched an inquiry into the technologies, innovations and practices which can help British agriculture deliver on the UK’s net zero commitments.

 

Our aim is to strengthen the evidence base for this pro-innovation approach.

 

The starting point for the inquiry is that climate change should be tackled by encouraging new green technologies and scientific innovations, rather than measures which might harm economic growth and living standards.

 

I am confident that this call will highlight many exciting examples of how advances in areas such as plant and animal breeding, precision agriculture, data science, indoor farming and other sectors can help reduce GHG emissions from agriculture and food production.

 

The All-Party Group is therefore inviting individuals and organisations, over the next three months closing on 14 December 2022, to submit written evidence on the range of farming technologies, innovations and practices which can help farmers reduce their climate footprint.

 

The resulting information will be used to produce a report highlighting the potential for science and innovation in agriculture to help the UK deliver on its net zero commitments.

 

This report will in turn be presented to Ministers to help inform policy on climate action.

 

Julian Sturdy is Conservative MP for the York Outer constituency. He chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, and is a member of the Science for Sustainable Agriculture advisory group.