Thank you to Christina and Rachel for this account and image. This panel discussion highlighted how important our farmers and land-owners are to our transition to a low carbon future and how much their ability to help us depends on national policy and access to subsidies.
Robin Walter, Shaftesbury-based Forester and writer
Martin Shallcross, Tisbury-based Farmer
ffinlo Costain, Chief Executive, Farmwel
Chair: Matthew Price, NFU, Sturminster Newton
This meeting attracted more than 60 people, Planet Shaftesbury regulars and others including a few farmers, to the town hall for a panel discussion. After introducing himself, our chair Matthew Price invited each member of the panel to introduce himself, describe his role in the current ecological challenge and respond to questions from the meeting. Here, rather than the detailed cut and thrust of discussion, we’re simply reporting the main points made by each speaker and from the floor.
Based on 37 years of experience working with farmers across Dorset, Matthew started with an introduction to farming in and around the county. Across the UK farmers & landowners manage 70% of the land, two thirds of it grassland. In the south-west 85% of the land is under agricultural management, most of it in private hands, home to a third of UK cattle and a fifth of UK sheep, a major employer – 7000 people, and makes a contribution of £2.7bn to the British economy. To the south & west of Shaftesbury the clay-based geology leads more to dairy farming, to north and east with more chalk we see more arable production and livestock.
Farmers bear the brunt of more extreme weather brought by climate change. Some have been unfairly vilified as part of the problem and yet the NFU has issued a report for farming and agriculture to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2040. Agriculture must be both economically and environmentally sustainable. Farmers face many challenges: the weather and crop failure, food security, hence increasing production for an expanding population, fuel security and so the giving over of land to renewable energy, and the pressure on land for building.
In response to a contribution from the floor suggesting the government puts food production on a “war footing”, he said that much damage had been inflicted on the land from the food shortages during the Second World War. His experience was that now many farming practices involved herb-rich forage, nitrogen fixing plants, no-till techniques, and changing sowing times in order to avoid the leaching of nutrients from fallow land. He believes that individual farmers can be “persuaded” into changing their practice in any of 3 ways: ethics, economic incentives, enforcement. He observed that at Sturminster Newton’s recent hustings all the questions from farmers concerned climate change. On carbon trading, he said that certain grants had been available to incentivise farmers.
His concluding statement was that through increased understanding of the problems facing farmers and landowners, we all shared the same goals. What would help was greater transparency in the provenance and labelling of our food and that each us has a role to play by supporting local food producers.
Robin described how, amongst the many other measures to address the climate emergency, “mitigation” in farming means stopping damaging practices whilst “adaptation” shows the way forward to respond to climatic changes. Whilst the NFU’s 2040 zero-carbon target is encouraging, their report puts little emphasis on the role trees can play in carbon capture and storage, restoring biodiversity, creating bio-energy, and in alleviating extremes in the weather. Although there are some fast-growing species, growing trees is not a short-term fix and the economy needs to be “re-purposed”. Britain has the lowest coverage of woodland in Europe (13%) and yet there are many sites where trees can be planted, notably low-grade land where conifer plantations could produce our own timber and displace imports (currently 80% of timber used is imported). Many parties envisage wide-spread tree planting (around 50K hectares increasing woodland coverage to 30-40%) to mitigate climate change – this is about 20x the area suggested in the NFU paper. During discussion about the urgency of making an effective response to climate change, Robin referred to the long, 50 year, time horizons that forestry works on. Those investing in tree planting as a crop need to be confident of a market in the long term.
The Woodland Carbon Code (2018 describes how carbon savings can be realistically achieved) along with the Woodland Carbon Fund (2018 where landowners can apply for support to plant large-scale woodland) support the importance of trees for holding carbon. This carbon can continue to be held in timber-built projects which additionally are cheaper. With regard to European farm subsidies, then these need to fund ‘public good’s rather than production; the reason that food is cheap is because farming does not pay for its environmental footprint, and he recommended a book by economist, Dieter Helm, ‘Green and Prosperous Land’.
Martin described the setting of his farm in the Vale of Wardour and established his credentials having farmed there since 1949. Then he ran through some of challenges farmers face: risk of disease, uncertainties about prices, and constant uncertainty about the weather that makes planning and budgeting difficult; he added that Brexit has exacerbated these problems because many farmers rely heavily on the European subsidy. Unless there is economic security, it is difficult for farmers to provide “public goods” (i.e. managing the countryside in ways that benefit local communities but don’t increase their own income); he cited the fluctuations in the milk price, for example, and how at times production costs were not even covered by what farmers could get for their milk. He has had to adapt to keep going: he’s growing elm trees which he can sell to the Forestry Commission and he commented that people are eating much more chicken and much less lamb/mutton than previously. Farming is hard and there is a problem in attracting people to work in it.
Martin had experienced many years of land stewardship schemes, the aim of which was to bring back the old hay meadows, field margins and hedge-laying techniques to improve biodiversity. He had had some success in getting local people involved in replanting hedgerows. He said that pasture land was efficient for carbon capture and without major incentives to compensate for reduced pasture planting woodlands would be too expensive to happen. Pressures on farming also come from abroad when people demand certain foods all year round, and he referred to the greater destructive practices, including cutting down rainforest, in some other countries.
ffinlo is an adviser to UK government on agricultural land use and food production. He acknowledged that intensive farming was a problem but that the whole food chain from policies, production, processing and consumer expectations and demand were involved. Collectively, we need to find out how farmers can run a business doing what we as a society need. Action to mitigate the impact of the climate emergency needs to go hand in hand with managing the land better for biodiversity. He suggested that Brexit provided opportunities for farmers through the changed policies and incentives possible in the Agriculture Bill. DEFRA is working on a target of 20% of the land to be taken out of production for the growing of trees, but he emphasised that they need to be diverse species.
He is concerned that food scarcity from climate-related disruption of the food chain could lead to civil strife within the next 40 years; this is a global problem, farming needs to be regenerative, and Britain will not be able to “plunder” the food resources of other countries. In response to the idea of a “war footing” to address food security and growing one’s own food, then it is too big an issue to be resolved in this way; the government needs to fund change in farming practices and create laws to ensure they work. Recommending the work of Allan Savory (Zimbabwean ecologist), he said that the restoration of the land through the adoption of new farming techniques were fundamental to addressing climate change.
On stewardship schemes, ffinlo said that they had fulfilled only a small amount of their potential to boost biodiversity because they were focussed on measured inputs rather than outputs. He said that farmers had not been encouraged to assess their carbon or biodiversity footprints and that contracts with supermarkets should be linked to environmental performance. Responding to a question about methane emissions, he said the disproportionate focus on this is because initial researchers had used a metric measurement (including by the IPCC) which has now been superseded by a more accurate one that reflects methane’s short life and lesser contribution to global warming than carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. He advocated smaller herds of cattle and flocks of sheep that can be part of restorative land management.
He said it was incumbent on the government to reduce the business risks to farmers. Legislation is required to ensure that farmers calculate their carbon footprint, and increased funding should be available in order for them to achieve their emissions targets. He said that cross-party commitment and greatly increased subsidies are needed so that land can be managed in ways that reduce the country’s carbon footprint. At the same time he said it is unjust that farmers should carry the whole responsibility for the country’s carbon footprint. Asked about rewilding, he commented that nature might regenerate itself but not in ways that are in the best interests of humankind. He said the land needs to be managed for human security, concluding that restoration of the land, combined with animal welfare, is fundamental to addressing the climate emergency. We understand the role of trees to a greater extent but need more research into the capacity of ponds/lakes and soil to capture carbon so that we can make informed decisions.
Additional Comments and Questions from the floor
These included: organic farming as a way forward since it supports the biological health of the soil and people might be willing to buy it if they understood how important this is. Shops and supermarkets could go a long way in proper labelling of produce but organic food is often seen as a “marketing ploy” to get consumers to pay a premium for it. There is actually a demand for locally produced organic food since a lot of it is flown in from other parts of the world, and so more commercial and practical support is needed for organic food production. More land in general should be used for vegetable growing.
The Country Landowners and Business Association needs to take more environmental issues on board.
Changes in farming practices were hampered by short-termism of government.
Although grants were available to farmers from the Environment Agency they were perceived as not well targeted.