Climate smart farming at the Royal Society

The 2008 Climate Change Act commits the UK to 80% statutory greenhouse gases emissions (GHG) reduction by 2050. The agricultural industry is responsible for approximately 25%, 50%, and 80% of global anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) respectively. In the UK farming and land use are accountable for 7.4% of total UK emissions and therefore represent a good opportunity to make progress toward GHG reduction targets.

Reducing GHG emissions within the agricultural sector however faces significant obstacles driven by the growth of the human population. As human population numbers rise, more people need feeding, and as the wealth of nations increase so does the demand for meat with the ‘westernisation’ of diets putting pressure on the agricultural industry to produce more food. Furthermore, the dwindling availability of land suitable for farming limits expansion of the industry. As a result, agriculture must as increase productivity by 70-100% by 2050 in order to avoid future food security crisis.

The combination of increasing food production on limited land while reducing GHG emissions consequently presents a unique scientific challenge. To address this, a meeting attended by the BES was held at the Royal Society in London this week to discuss the options for ‘Reducing green house gas emissions from agriculture’.

Expert speakers gave presentations on how to create ‘climate smart agriculture’ and discussed potential solutions and opportunities including:

• Improving land management through intensification of agricultural practices to avoid further carbon dioxide release from expansion into remaining suitable land such as tropical forests.
• Improving soil management to conserve stocks of nitrogen and enhance carbon capture/sequestration.
• Reducing unnecessary over use of nitrogen fertilizers responsible for carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions.
• Replacing fossil fuel use with bioenergy feedstocks.
• Exploring genetic modification of rice cultivars and cattle to reduce methane production.
• Altering rice cultivation management practice and cattle diet to reduce methane production.
• Improving manure management to reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions.
• Decreasing food wastage and changing western dietary behaviours by encouraging people to decrease meat consumption to reduce demand.

The meeting highlighted that reducing emissions across the agricultural industry provides a significant opportunity to help achieve the UK emissions reduction targets. Speakers additionally drew attention to the fact that the agricultural industry has until present, not been a central part of climate change talks, and suggested that the future inclusion of agriculture as a central part of the climate change agenda would be beneficial. Speakers further noted that subsequent policy should consider all demands on land, provide incentives for implementation of more environmentally friendly practice across farming, and include raising awareness to encourage decreased meat consumption in western society.