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Farming innovations to deliver Net Zero

Julian Sturdy MP

July 2023

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

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Following the launch of a cross-party Parliamentary report into the farming innovations needed to deliver on the UK’s climate commitments, Conservative MP Julian Sturdy highlights the importance of regulatory action by Government in a number of areas – gene editing, novel proteins for animal feed, and methane-reducing feed additives – to ensure these promising technologies realise their potential to reduce British agriculture’s carbon footprint. He also underlines the critical importance of standardised sustainability metrics in agriculture, not only to understand the wider impacts and consequences of farm policy decisions, but also to quantify the potential benefits of new farming technologies and innovations in supporting sustainable increases in domestic food production while delivering on the Net Zero agenda.          


In late 2022, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science & Technology in Agriculture launched a call for evidence into the farming technologies, innovations and practices which can help deliver on the UK’s Net Zero commitments. The starting point for the inquiry was that climate change should be tackled by encouraging new green technologies and scientific innovation in agriculture, rather than by imposing measures which might harm economic growth and living standards, and ultimately reduce domestic food production.


Policy developments under discussion in other countries, such as the imposition of emissions reduction targets, livestock culls, and even the buy-out and closure of farms, suggest that agriculture can often be 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 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction when he spoke to the All-Party Group in January 2022.    


But agriculture is possibly unique in its relationship to climate change – at the same time a major cause, victim and a source of solutions.


It is therefore disappointing that the narrative around climate change and agriculture is often negative in tone, particularly in relation to livestock farming, diverting attention from the enormous opportunities for agricultural innovation to contribute positively to the climate agenda.


Nor can climate change be tackled in isolation. War in Ukraine has exposed the fragility of the world’s food system, and the precarious balance which exists between global supply and demand. Estimates from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation suggest that the world needs to increase food production and availability by up to 70% by 2050 to keep pace with the food needs of a rapidly expanding global population.


This is particularly relevant to the development of farming systems in temperate regions such as the UK, which organisations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predict will be less susceptible to the production-limiting effects of changes in temperature, rainfall and increasing weather extremes. 


In meeting our Net Zero commitments by 2050, therefore, the United Kingdom also has a global responsibility to optimise its own food production capabilities, and reduce our dependence on food imports, so minimising our food system footprint in parts of the world where farmers may be more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.        


This week, the All-Party Group published its summary report entitled ‘Farming Innovations to Deliver Net Zero’. While not intended to be comprehensive or exhaustive, this document draws on the written submissions we received from organisations and individuals in response to our call for evidence, as well as presentations made to the group by experts from different sectors. 


It highlights eight key areas of innovation with the potential to transform British agriculture’s climate impact, including advances in areas such as plant and animal breeding, precision agriculture, alternative proteins, feed additives, green fertilisers and indoor farming.


The report also identifies a number of potential and actual barriers to these innovations reaching Britain’s farmers, and makes recommendations for Government to remove these barriers, covering a range of regulatory, policy and R&D actions.


For example, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 opens up significant opportunities for climate change mitigation and adaptation in plant and animal breeding. But those advances may fail to materialise if the Act’s underpinning rationale – ie that precision bred products pose no new or additional risks compared to conventional - is not reflected in the final implementing rules. Concerns are mounting that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is planning an entirely separate regulatory process for the approval of precision bred food and feed products.


This is at odds with the approach taken in other countries, such as Canada. Even the EU is now proposing to regulate precision bred plant products in the same way as conventionally bred.        


Indeed, concerns that Britain is trailing behind the EU were often cited in response to our inquiry in relation to climate-proofing technologies and innovations in agriculture. Having previously been a world leader in the science of insect farming, for example, the UK is now falling behind due to regulatory barriers not constraining the insect industry elsewhere, including in the EU. And yet the use of novel protein sources in animal feed, such as insect meal, offers major opportunities to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint compared to other protein sources.


Similarly, while the methane-inhibiting feed additive Bovaer was approved for marketing in the EU in February 2022, it is still awaiting FSA approval for use in the UK. According to its manufacturers, Dutch company DSM, Bovaer can reduce enteric methane emissions by approximately 30% for dairy cows and by as much as 90% for beef cattle.    


When he spoke to the All-Party Group, Gideon Henderson was critical of the lack of progress by the UK farming industry in reducing GHG emissions compared to other sectors. He stressed the importance of reducing methane emissions from red meat and dairy production if the UK is serious about its Net Zero target. As we point out in the report, in view of the potentially significant contribution of methane-reducing feed additives such as Bovaer, it would seem reasonable to expect the Government to treat this issue with greater urgency, and consider a fast-track approach for the approval of feed additives which may favourably affect the environment and Net Zero.         


The APPG report also stresses the importance of consistent and meaningful metrics, not only in relation to the current measurement of GHG emissions, which many believe discriminates unfairly and unscientifically against enteric methane emissions from livestock, but also in relation to sustainable agriculture more generally. The report describes how focusing exclusively on GHG emissions, rather than including GHG emissions as one measure in a basket of sustainability indicators, may lead to unintended impacts elsewhere.


The All-Party Group has long advocated the need to embed data science and sustainability metrics at the heart of a farm policy agenda focused on securing the optimum balance between food production, resource use and environmental impact. As NFU President Minette Batters recently pointed out in a column for SSA discussing the development of post-CAP farming policies:


“We do not have any benchmarks of the current position, nor any agreed metrics to monitor the effects of these policies. ELMS and the SFI standards seem to have been developed with little if any scientific rigour.”    


Those metrics are urgently needed, not only to understand the wider impacts and consequences of policy decisions, but also to quantity the potential benefits of new farming technologies and innovations in supporting a sustainable increase in domestic food production and economic growth while delivering on the Net Zero agenda for British agriculture.      


Julian Sturdy is Conservative MP for the York Outer constituency. A regular contributor in Parliament on farming and rural policy issues, he chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, and is a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

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