The SFT wholeheartedly welcomes the United Nation’s call for ‘unprecedented’ action to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. We need urgent, renewed and greatly increased efforts to move away from fossil fuel energy and embrace the full range of renewable technologies that can produce and store energy with little or no greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the UN, agriculture accounts for one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions, but the SFT cautions against half-baked solutions that could do more harm than good, such as substantial reductions in ruminant numbers and giving up red meat. This will not help to save the planet from catastrophic climate change and in many ways would make things worse.

Fossil fuels are not only the major source of carbon dioxide they are also responsible for a third more methane emissions than ruminants. In addition, all the carbon in ruminant methane is recycled carbon taken from the atmosphere by the plants ruminants eat. In contrast, the carbon in fossil fuel methane is, by definition, new carbon that has been locked away underground for 400 million years.

Two-thirds of UK farmland is under grass and the only way to get food from this is to graze it. Grass is also the only major crop that can transfer carbon from the atmosphere to soil while still producing food, albeit indirectly. By including clover with grass, cattle and sheep farmers could avoid the use of nitrogen fertiliser which is made from natural gas, at the environmental cost equivalent to about 8 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tonne of nitrogen manufactured. Permanently converting large areas of grassland to vegetable production is also not the answer since this would put the equivalent of 250 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare into the atmosphere over the next 20 years. And while we should plant as many trees as possible this needs to be integrated with food production in hedgerows and agroforestry rather than in place of food production since this will only increase our food imports and simply export our food-related emissions to other countries.

All farmers should, of course, seek to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, but we need to see things in context. Eating the average of 18.2 kg of beef and 4.9kg of lamb per person per year is responsible for a carbon foot print of approximately 500 kg of carbon dioxide if the beef comes from the dairy herd, slightly more if it comes from suckler beef herds. In contrast, the average annual carbon footprint of aviation alone in the UK is 1.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person.


Photograph: Max Guitare

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