Farming has been in no doubt a huge contributor to the emission of climate change gases. Between 10 and 20% of all greenhouse emissions worldwide (around 12 billion tons CO₂ equivalent), have been laid at the feet of farmers.
And it feels like this situation is intractable, doesn’t it? How can we feed all the extra people being born if we don’t significantly increase our food output?
It is one of those problems that leads people to feel hopeless, or panic, and no one thinks best when they are panicking.
A classic symptom of this is the blame game.
Emissions From Beef and Milk Production
People have jumped on beef and milk production as being the guilty parties. After all, we are repeatedly being told, cows are a massively wasteful way to produce food compared to production of vegetables or arable crops. Or are they? Let’s take a closer look.
For example, cows produce methane. A horrendous greenhouse pollutant that is 25 times worse than CO₂ at locking the sun’s energy into our atmosphere. In fact, beef and dairy can produce up to the equivalent of 7.5 tons for every hectare grazed, which is bad.
Emissions From Farming
However, the people that have been using this statistic tend to be those leading the charge for a societal change to a plant based diet, and quietly ignore the other side of the equation. The emissions from arable farming.
When you take into account all the greenhouse pollutants released by traditionally farmed arable crops, emissions can be up to 7 tons of CO₂ equivalent per hectare. As there is more land under arable than used for cattle grazing, this puts the total output at more than 18 million tonnes. Which is worse.
I have not gone into the other types of food production because all this is just to illustrate a point. The key words in all of the above are “up to”.
The thing is that there are as many ways to farm cows or wheat as there are farmers, and the effects of these different methods have a huge influence on farming’s impact on climate change. There are other nuances and issues to take into account. For example, the thorny question of the associated food miles. Food waste is also a massive problem: if it were a country, it would be the third largest emitter. Added to which, the latest scientific opinion from Oxford University now puts question marks over whether methane is really so much worse, after all.
Varies By Farming Method
But my main preoccupation here is the farming methods themselves. For example, the cattle farming figure I used is taken from intensive farming, which relies on feeds, and the cows tend to stay inside a lot. Farming based on lower impact methods, with cows spending more time in pasture, generate more like 4.2 tonnes/hectare. In the UK, where much land is better (or in many cases, only) suited to pasture, grass-fed cattle (and sheep) are commonplace.
Similarly, the 7 ton figure for arable land assumes the fields are ploughed – a process which releases approximately 90% of the total CO₂ emissions from the soil itself.
Zero Till Arable Farming
If a farmer uses zero till arable farming, where the fields are not ploughed, and the crop is planted into narrow furrows cut into fields that still contain last year’s stubble, total emissions can also be brought down to around 5 tons per hectare. This is countered with the fact that zero till needs a far greater use of herbicides because ploughing is a great way to control weeds.
Unfortunately organic arable food production releases more CO₂ per hectare than normal crops, because they completely rely on ploughing for weed control, although organic farmers do their damnedest to counter this in other ways.
So as you can see the arguments around which is the right food to produce pale in comparison to the methods used. And this is why I view this whole area with hope, not fear.
Farmers Integral to an Environmental Solution
There are currently a whole cohort of farmers and entrepreneurs who are looking beyond even these approaches to bring down CO₂ emissions. This is now an industry-wide ambition. For example, the UK’s National Farmers Union (NFU), the largest organisation in England and Wales representing farmers and growers, has taken up the gauntlet, committing British Agriculture to be Net Zero by 2040.
In cattle, the work being done by Ian Wilkinson at FarmEd and others to re-introduce a richer variety of pasture plants, and the evolution of the ancient practice of mob or rotational grazing is attempting to reduce methane emissions from cows using a more varied diet. Also, startups such as Synergraze are starting to commercialize food additives made from red seaweed to emit methane production altogether. Also to be commended is the work by fertilizer companies Enviro Systems and Elemental Digest.
On top of this, pasture land is pretty good at CO₂ sequestration, or storage. Not as good as planting trees, but estimates suggest that between 1 and 4 tonnes of CO₂ per hectare per year could be locked into the soil through using the right plants, and caring for the pasture in the right way.
Which leads me on to the future of arable farming.
The Future of Arable Farming
Small Robot Company has a vision that robot-grown arable crops can be carbon positive. By this I mean that it can store more carbon in the soil than it uses to produce the crop.
Firstly, we believe that our precision planting approach can get close to eliminating the release of carbon from the soil. We can’t really talk about it too much (yet – watch this space), but our system disturbs the soil far less even than zero till. So that is 90+% of emissions saved right there.
Next, by using light weight vehicles combined with this planting system, we are letting the soil restore itself, and in the process absorbing this 1-4 tonnes of CO₂ per hectare per year. Of course, these electric vehicles are also decarbonising the farm fleet. Current estimates show that between 0.25 and 0.5 tonnes of CO₂ per hectare are released from diesel powered farm vehicles.
We are also driving down the use of carbon intensive chemicals. For example, Yara suggests that up to 0.8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per hectare are used in the production of nitrogen fertilizer alone. We are focused on slashing this.
Renewables Power Robots
Finally, we are aiming to use renewable energy to power our vehicles. In a trial planned with the UK’s National Trust, we are looking to use a farm based solar array to power our three small robots, to remove all external energy required. Finally, we are aiming to trial using renewable energy to power our vehicles. In a trial planned with the National Trust, we are looking to use a farm based solar array to power our three small robots, to remove all external energy required. Farmers across the UK are working with us as trial farms, including Waitrose, The National Trust and the Groundswell regenerative agriculture farm, in order to deliver this game-changing technology. Yet more farmers have joined us to help advise us as part of our Wider Advisory Group. A team effort to deliver systemic change to arable farming. By farmers, for farmers.
It is an ambitious goal, but the benefits are potentially massive. In the UK alone, 18 million tons of emissions could be converted into anything up to 6 million tonnes of CO₂ locked back into the soil. Every year. That is a net difference of 24 million tons, the equivalent of two thirds of the UK’s emissions from aviation.
And it’s not just Small Robot Company looking at this. There are many ongoing initiatives to reduce emissions, and to measure and reward carbon capture that should be applauded. In particular, the Terraton project led by Indigo Ag, which looks to remove one trillion tons of it and bring the concentration back to pre-Industrial Revolution levels.
The Committee for Climate Change report, Land use: Policies for a Net Zero UK sets out a number of recommendations and possible approaches (see chapter 7: Agriculture). The CCC is currently conducting analysis around the pathway to Net Zero, which will inform the level of the 6th Carbon Budget (CB6). The Nature Friendly Farming Network has already come up with a practical guide for farmers looking to reduce emissions. And it’s likely that further industry and commercial initiatives will emerge in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow later this year.
Hope for the Future
So when I look at the challenges faced by farming, alongside the fear I feel hope. Hope that, when we stop blaming and start applying our ingenuity to this problem, it can be converted into an opportunity.
Hope that, whether it is revisiting 19th century grazing methods, red seaweed, small robots, or any of the hundreds of other innovative farmers and companies out there trying to solve this problem, farming can evolve into a being a hero of the climate emergency.
Ben Scott-Robinson is an accomplished digital entrepreneur focused on geospatial and mobility technologies. He co-founded the Small Robot Company in 2017 which endeavours to replace tractors with accurate, smart, lightweight robots. With 20 years experience in digital innovation, including the digital transformation of ordnance survey. Ben is also an experienced technology entrepreneur having founded two agencies, two consultancies, an app start-up and a phone for the blind.
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