Activist Gail Bradbrook had a stark message for farmers at recent conference on climate change and agriculture held in a converted barn in the Cotswolds: given their reliance on the land, farmers should ally with the Extinction Rebellion movement ahead of protests planned for autumn in London.

“Join us and bring your tractors!” the Extinction Rebellion co-founder said. “Stop being so fucking British!” 

The moment captured the dilemma facing British farmers. Like other sectors of the economy, agriculture will have to contribute if the UK is to meet its ambitious pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

But farming, which accounts for roughly 9 per cent of national emissions, is already confronting a period of profound change as it contemplates the prospect of life outside the EU.

Gail Bradbrook addresses a Sustainable Food Trust conference in Gloucestershire earlier this year © Chloe Edwards

After Brexit, the annual subsidies farmers receive under the EU common agricultural policy will be replaced by a radical new system that emphasises the provision of “public goods”, such as clean water or wildlife habitat. Plus, the terms on which they will trade with Europe and the world remain unknown — export tariffs or new trade deals may make British farm products from beef to butter uncompetitive. 

With all the uncertainty, some farmers worry they are ill prepared to overhaul their practices to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Even before the UK’s net zero target, agriculture experts predicted that many smaller, unprofitable farms will be forced out of business after Brexit

Marian Harding, who runs Court Lodge Organics dairy farm in East Sussex with her husband David, said they wanted to help fight climate change, but were not sure how. Like most farmers, they have not analysed their operation’s carbon footprint. 

The largest source of greenhouse gases on Harding’s farm are the dairy cows, which naturally emit methane as they digest. Another is the manure and straw collected when the cows are kept indoors in the winter; the muck is kept and stored outdoors for use later as fertiliser. 

In one important way the Hardings’ organic farm already has a lower carbon footprint than a conventional farm — it does not use chemical fertilisers, which are made in energy-intensive processes and release nitrous oxide upon application. 

An expert looking at Mrs Harding’s farm is likely to suggest building enclosed storage for the manure muck so as to stop methane from escaping. “I guess we could do that,” Mrs Harding said. “But would it really make a difference?” 

Winning over wary farmers will be key if the agriculture sector is to cut its emissions. In one positive sign, the National Farmers Union has emerged as a vocal proponent of change, setting a net zero goal by 2040. 

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But it will also take money: many farms simply do not have the capital to invest in new technologies, tools and facilities to reduce carbon emissions. 

The UK’s Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government on emissions targets, has called for the new post-Brexit farm subsidy system to be used to incite change. “Financial payments in the UK Agriculture Bill should be linked to actions to reduce and sequester emissions, to take effect from 2022,” it wrote in a report. 

The CCC estimated that land and agriculture projects to reduce emissions and store carbon would cost “under £2bn annually”, which is less than the roughly €3bn British farmers now get under Europe’s common agricultural policy. 

Cows naturally emit methane as they digest © Chloe Edwards

Much work remains to be done to figure out best practices for farms to reduce greenhouse gas. Techniques differ depending on whether farms raise livestock, have dairy operations, or are growing grains or raising fruit and vegetables in glasshouses. 

Farming produces three main gases that are dangerous to the climate: nitrous oxide from fertiliser use, methane from livestock, and carbon dioxide, which comes from electricity or fuel for tractors and vehicles. 

In the UK, where two-thirds of the farmland is only suitable for grazing livestock, 56 per cent of the roughly 49m tonnes of CO2 equivalent emitted annually comes from methane. Nitrous oxide accounts for a further 33 per cent and carbon dioxide 11 per cent, according to 2017 UK government statistics. 

The nature of the UK landscape means that the biggest wins will come from measures that help raise livestock while minimising methane emissions, such as tweaking their feed and better manure management. Reducing chemical fertiliser use is also important: one way is to inject it into fields instead of applying it on top, and satellite imagery can be used to apply only where needed. 

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Scientists are researching whether some sheep and cow breeds naturally emit less methane, which would mean genetics could also help. 

In addition to finding ways to cut emissions, policymakers and academics have to come up with ways to measure and audit how much carbon is being stored on farmland. 

Such work is crucial because farming differs in one important way from other polluting sectors such as power generation or transportation: it not only generates greenhouse gas, but can also store carbon dioxide in soils, trees, and plants. 

Farming practices such as minimal tilling of the soil, planting cover crops between main cash crops, and crop rotation can all help boost the organic matter in soil so it holds more carbon. Additional gains can come from planting trees, hedges, and other flora. 

Even cows and sheep can be part of the solution, despite being cast by some as climate change villains. As they munch on and trample grasslands, they spur growth, accelerating the carbon cycle, and holding more gas in the soil. 

Currently, there is no policy framework to count on-farm carbon storage, or to give farmers credit for such initiatives. Efforts are under way to change this, however, so farmers may one day get paid for storing carbon. 

In a world first, Australia recently issued carbon credits to a family farm in Victoria for storing carbon in its soil, and US start-up Indigo Agriculture is developing similar projects. 

For the agriculture sector to flight climate change, policymakers have to both penalise carbon emissions and promote carbon storage, said Oxford economist Dieter Helm, who has been helping the government craft new environment and farming policies. 

“Agriculture now is a serious net emitter of greenhouse gases, whereas in the future that will have to go, and there will be a big opportunity to make it a net sequestrator,” he said. 

Some British farmers worry that the push to cut greenhouse gas emissions, which is often paired with expert advice for people to consume less meat and dairy, will lead to calls to stop raising livestock in the UK altogether. 

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This would be an error, argues Joe Stanley, who grows crops and raises 150 longhorn cattle on his 750 acre farm in the East Midlands. Beef produced in Europe emits three times less greenhouse gas than beef raised in South America where land is often deforested for grazing, according to one Oxford university study. 

“There is nothing else you can do with this land,” Mr Stanley said of the British countryside. “You could take off the cows and plant trees, but then you’d likely just end up importing food from countries that pollute more than we do.”

How milk producer cut its carbon footprint

At Arla Foods — a dairy co-operative of 11,000 farmers in seven European countries, including the UK — efforts to produce milk more sustainably began more than a decade ago.

Since 2005, greenhouse gas emissions produced by the company have fallen by 22 per cent, while milk production has risen by 40 per cent. Progress came from using renewable energies and reducing waste to landfill, as well as improving yields from dairy herds.

Arla recently set more ambitious targets: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent per kilo of milk over the next decade and “work towards” net zero by 2050.

“A lot of great work has already been done, and farmers need to be recognised for that,” said Graham Wilkinson, Arla’s director of agriculture in the UK. “But there is a lot of work ahead.”

Arla will begin in January to audit the carbon footprint of all of its farms. Studies are also under way to identify the best techniques to reduce emissions, as well as prove how much carbon is being stored in grazing lands.

Trials that altered the composition of cows’ usual diet of grasses achieved up to 30 per cent reduction in methane emissions by adding different proteins and minerals to the feed. Arla is also testing to see if manure can economically be used to make biogas, a clean energy to power the farm.

Mr Wilkinson admitted Arla did not know how much the net zero effort would cost its farmers. “Some of the technology and tools we need have not yet been invented,” he said.