The third conference hosted by Fir Farm and organised by the Sustainable Food Trust, this time in an unprecedented partnership with the National Farmers’ Union, Farming and Climate Change: Towards Net Zero Emissions, brought together a diverse range of attendees concerned with the urgent issue of tackling climate change. The conference took as its impetus, NFU President Minette Batters’s challenge to all farmers of achieving net zero carbon emissions from UK agriculture by 2040.

How agriculture responds to the monumental climate emergency that the planet faces, underpins the premise of the conference. The target set by Batters will make demands on all kinds of farmers and growers, small and large, and it will also, hopefully, close a divide between more and less sustainable farmers as they work towards a unified goal.

The conference kicked off on Thursday 4th July with a tour of Fir Farm, illustrating the practices they use to nurture their soils and ensure that as much carbon as possible is sequestered on their land. The operation is mixed between a diverse range of livestock, including turkeys, cattle, sheep and pigs, which graze on grassland in an elemental interrelationship. Fir Farm offers a valuable example of the critical role that ruminants play in ‘landscape’ – an idea that Australian grazier Charles Massy discussed in his keynote talk that followed the walk. Massy is a seminal voice in regenerative agriculture, which foregrounds ‘ecological literacy’ as a key tool. It looks to nature as a guide, seeking always to support and regenerate ecosystems. Massy is uncompromising in his conviction that healthy food comes from healthy landscapes and that modern industrial agriculture has damaged this. Regenerative practices can repair their landscapes.

The opening panel explored the nature (quite literally) of the problem we face. Gail Bradbrook of Extinction Rebellion made the significance of our situation utterly clear – “We’re f**ked,” she stated, “…it’s so serious.” The predictions are that population will grow by 50% by the end of the century and food production will fall by half, with nutritional value deteriorating by a third. And we are 30 to 40 years away from a fundamental loss of our soil fertility. “This is so much about the land,” Bradbrook says. Her overwhelming message is that things must change. Agriculture, unquestionably, has a key role to play in this and the farm lobby should be with Extinction Rebellion, protesting on the streets.

That changing farming practice is immensely possible was made clear by Martijn Wilder, a leading pioneer in climate change law. His talk following Bradbrook discussed changes in Australian agriculture and how farmers have been incentivised to adopt more sustainable practices.

A lively session of ‘Any Questions’, with a farming slant, was led by Jonathan Dimbleby, addressing an array of queries put to a panel with Minette Batters, MP Richard Benyon, Professor Michael Lee and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Tom Watson and, of course, Patrick Holden. Right out of the gate was the provocative question, “Are high farming yields the enemy of nature?” Batters made the pertinent point that it shouldn’t be about downsizing yield; it should be about climate-smart farming, with Lee noting that, “chasing any single metric is damaging to sustainability”, implying that a question like this can only really be answered from a holistic perspective where, Lee argues, farmers understand the capacity of their land and ensure they don’t overburden their soils with inorganic fertilisers. Another question posed to the panel was “How can we convince consumers to pay more for their food?” which as Jonathan Dimbleby noted, implies that consumers should pay more. But Watson pointed out the divide between those that can pay more and those that can’t, as well as the nature of the diets they can afford. The fact that the cost of processed food is less than that of fresh food inevitably impacts people with less income, Lee pointed out, while Patrick Holden noted that ensuring those on lower incomes had access to healthy food was government’s responsibility and it was still necessary to ensure that producers are paid the full cost of production for their food. The discussion teased out the complicated issues embedded in questions such as these, that make answers anything but easy.

The conference also looked closely at the science of agricultural emissions and their impact on climate change. The panel exploring this, with Michael Lee, Myles Allen and Dieter Helm, takes apart the figures and looks at them in radically new ways, ultimately making a solid case for the value of ruminants in the climate emergency. Catherine Broomfield questions in her commentary on the panel: “How have we allowed the public debate to conflate 100% plant-based diets with saving the planet? And in so doing, how on earth has the humble cow come to have taken 90% of the flak for global warming?” These are good questions and she has some excellent points to make!

Following a panel of case studies on the Cholderton Estate, Niman Ranch and Beeswax Dyson Farming looking at production methods with commentary from Simon Fairlie, the conference closed with a session on ‘Making sustainable farming pay’ – perhaps the ultimate question. How do we create a farming system that makes sustainability profitable? The principle of ‘public money for public goods’ is certainly a game changer, but with the devil in the details, how this will play out in practice is still up in the air. Tony Juniper of Natural England discussed some of the issues to negotiate: how do we refine and measure biodiversity and carbon in particular? Robert Appleby pressed the importance of profitability in sustainability, as well as the need to transition from a linear growth economy to a circular one. Ending the discussion, Dieter Helm argued admirably for a ‘Green and Prosperous’ land which can only be achieved if we preserve our natural capital. He insists on the necessity of the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle and ‘Net Environmental Gain’, both of which will change the economics of farming fundamentally and which are being incorporated into policy as we speak.

For more opinion, films and photos from the conference click here.

Photograph: Chloe Edwards Photography

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