Climate change affects everything. While agriculture, if it continues with ‘business as usual’, is likely to be one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases by 2050, it is also likely to be the system impacted most by climate change.

Accounting as it does for 75% of the UK’s land area and 11% of UK emissions, agriculture will play a critical role in helping nature’s recovery and adaptation to climate change. At the same time, agricultural land must continue to produce enough food, fuel and fibre to meet society’s needs, while contributing to other objectives such as water management. We need a holistic approach to shift agricultural practices for climate, nature and people.

RSPB commissioned research to investigate which agricultural solutions offer synergy between climate and nature, and where there is a risk of conflict. This assessment is built on an extensive review of the literature, as well as consultations with RSPB specialists.

There are several stand-out interventions which deliver the most for both climate and nature:

Support nature-based solutions to climate change

  • Peatland restoration and management

The organic soils found in peatlands store vast amounts of carbon. Many UK peatlands are currently net sources of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere due to degradation: only 1% of England’s deep peat is considered undamaged. Drainage, cultivation, overgrazing and burning can all lead to release of carbon. Restoring peat by halting and reversing processes that lead to degradation (for example, through grip blocking or re-wetting) are quick, ‘no-regrets’ interventions with benefits for climate, nature and people.

  • Permanent grassland conservation and restoration

Permanent grasslands have higher stocks of soil carbon than do croplands – it is best to avoid conversion in the first place, but reverting improved grassland or arable land to semi-natural grassland can increase carbon storage. This can be an entire land area, or in spots such as buffer strips and field margins, field corners and hedgerows. When croplands are converted into grassland, sequestration will not go on forever, but these grasslands will hold vast stocks of carbon.

  • Coastal habitat conservation and restoration

Protecting coastal habitats also increases carbon stocks. Much of UK coastal habitat has been lost as a result of development and land conversion for agriculture. In some circumstances agriculture must cease; in others a change of agricultural system to protect coastal habitats from impacts such as fertiliser run-off, or to restore positive management such as low-intensity grazing will be beneficial.

Transition to climate friendly farming systems

  • Organic and/or mixed farming

Research suggests that some, but not all, food produced from organic systems in England and Wales has a greenhouse gas benefit compared to conventional farming, when considering the true greenhouse gas cost of production and transport of inorganic fertiliser in conventional systems. Where feasible, mixed farming can reduce emissions by re-integrating crop and livestock production and improving the efficiency of land and resource use, by enhanced nutrient cycling and improving soil health.

  • Agroforestry

Adding trees to the landscape can increase carbon sequestration through both the carbon incorporated into the trees themselves and the soil. In the right circumstances and design, agroforestry can provide similar levels of timber as forestry, and similar levels of food production as pasture, and trees can provide a food crop. Integrating trees into arable systems can increase soil fertility and enhance natural pest control.

Less is more livestock

  • Reduced stocking density

Clearly, reducing the density of ruminant livestock will reduce emissions because there are fewer animals present emitting greenhouse gases. However, intensity of grazing can also influence the carbon balances of the grasslands themselves. In some conditions, light grazing stimulates root and vegetative growth, increasing productivity and sequestration rates, whereas overgrazing can damage soils.

 

Nutrient management

Making efficient use of and minimising mineral fertilisers, incorporating applied manure or slurry into soil, and reducing the exposure of organic fertilisers to the air can significantly reduce emissions of ammonia and methane.

 

 

 Arable

  •  Use spring cultivars

Spring-sown crops have lower nitrogen requirements than winter-sown crops and may therefore lead to reduced emissions of nitrous oxide from soil and of carbon dioxide from fertiliser production and transport. Similarly, any crops which are more efficient in nutrient uptake will have a positive impact.

  • Add nitrogen fixing and cover crops in rotation

Including leguminous crops like beans or peas in rotations provides biological nitrogen fixation. Legume crops do not require nitrogen fertilisers and can also have a fertilising effect on the crop that comes after them in the rotation. Using cover crops to avoid bare ground over winter reduces nitrate leaching and may reduce emissions of nitrous oxide and enhance soil carbon sequestration. Leguminous cover crops can also provide so-called ‘green manure’ if ploughed into the soil.

 

Recommendations

Farmers should be able to adopt these practices now – but many are constrained by a lack of funds or expertise. Policy and legislation must prioritise this immediately, through:

  • Advice and support for all farmers through ELM to transition to low carbon practices highlighted here and in the full report, especially for smaller and more marginal businesses
  • Public money for public goods – farmers should be rewarded through the Agriculture Bill for delivering nature-based climate solutions, including peat and coastal habitat restoration
  • Strong environmental baselines and regulation in law so nature and climate friendly farmers are not undermined
  • Long-term funding and certainty so farmers can confidently invest in low carbon practices
  • Ban the extraction and burning of peat with incentives to restore all upland peat habitats.

For a full copy of the report, see the attachment below or please contact mair.floydbosley@rspb.org.uk.

Image credits:

Wildflower meadow, Forest Farm, Wales. Image RSPB rspb-images.com

Avon heath country park, Dorset, White Park cattle which help improve heath and woodland. Image David Kjaer Rspb-images.com

Wild bird cover crop next to wheat, Bowhouse Farm, Fife, Scotland. Image Ian Francis rspb-images.com

First year arable reversion, Manor Farm, Sussex. Image Andy Hay rspb-images.com

Sustainable mitigation in agriculture report Mar 20.pdf
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