What are we doing to the good earth? Parts of the UK are now virtually unrecognisable for people who grew up 70 years ago. Intensive agricultural methods, politics, policies, new food patterns, and climate change all impact biodiversity – with 20% of native UK plant species and many birds and insects now at risk. But the countryside also gives us renewable energy and green energy crops.
This leads on I think to the key question of what do we actually want from modern rapidly-changing rural Britain? And how do we get it?
We are quite rightly driven today by the crucial net-zero targets of using less energy, using clean renewable energy and low-carbon technologies wherever possible, and creating less greenhouse gas-generating waste.
But we can’t ignore the fact that agriculture is now one of the biggest environmental elephants in the room … or in this case the world … and as the planet’s largest ‘industrial’ sector accounts for some 75% of the UK’s national land take.
Clarkson v Travis
I am no farmer. In fact, my practical knowledge of working the land is probably on a par with Doncaster-born motoring guru – and more recently unorthodox agricultural sage – Jeremy Clarkson. Which is to say, not particularly extensive. More about that and Clarkson’s Farm at the end of this post!
However, as an environmental consultant at Enzygo (https://www.enzygo.com/) where I specialise in hydrology (https://www.enzygo.com/hydrology/), I am acutely aware of the UK countryside’s easily overlooked role, food production aside, of conservation, plus green energy security.
As such, I thought it is perhaps time to look more closely at how new technologies, nature itself, and government political and investment decision-making, are subtly changing our rural and urban surroundings.
More and less rain, stronger biodiversity, and extra green energy …
I will start with the link between climate change, good farming practice, flooding, droughts and water shortages. By helping to strengthen biodiversity, we can protect natural systems that our survival and UK lifestyles depend on.
I also look at recent policy initiatives, as well as the growing role of agriculture in low-carbon energy generation. And no review would be complete without mentioning Brexit!
As a hydrologist, I am keen to understand how global warming effects our changing weather patterns, and the risks posed by heavy floods interspersed with severe droughts. The news here is not reassuring.
Researchers at Bristol University, working with the climate risk assessment company Fathom, have produced a detailed “future flood map” of Britain. This shows that flooding could increase by more than 20% over the next century if global carbon-reduction pledges are not met (https://www.bristol.ac.uk/research/impact/stories/mapping-global-flood-risk/ and https://www.fathom.global/product/flood-hazard-data-maps/).
However, we need to be equally-aware of severe water shortages – 2023 saw the driest February in England since 1993 – plus the effects of last summer’s unusual drought conditions on crops.
A key point I need to make is that we need to understand how good land use can helps us to cope with both disruptive flooding events and potentially more frequent and long-lasting drought periods.
Suffering nature …
It is also important to understand that biodiversity underpins our whole human support system. Unfortunately, we are seeing a worrying decline in many endemic plants and insects, some marginalised by invasive species.
While non-native species thrive, native plants are being hit hard by modern agriculture and climate change, according to a new 20-year study of flora specimens that recently updated the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) Plant Atlas 2020 (https://plantatlas2020.org/).
In fact, Britain is now one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, with one in every five plant species at extinction risk. As head of science Kevin Walker at BSBI explains, “The loss of grasslands, heathlands and other habitats would be really shocking for someone brought up in the 1950s”.
UK flying insects have also declined by up to 60% in 20 years as the invertebrates they feed on are affected by rising temperatures and fragmented habitats (https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2022/may/uks-flying-insects-have-declined-60-in-20-years.html and https://cdn.buglife.org.uk/2022/05/Bugs-Matter-2021-National-Report.pdf).
More biodiversity …
Another key point is that biodiversity and thriving wildlife populations improve agricultural productivity. Biodiversity helps to regulate natural ecosystems, deliver ecosystem services, and stabilise ecosystems that resist environmental change. All with no loss in agricultural yields.
In fact, with productive species we can improve processes like soil organic matter loss rates. Nutrient availability governs microbial activity. Low-nutrient organic farming can reduce biodiversity losses while also increasing wildlife. The caveat is that a lot of semi-natural habitat must be available.
Other biodiversity options …
Wider management strategies can be important too. One is to use wildlife-friendly farming that enhances natural populations. The other is to use intensive farming to increase yields on part of the land, but allow the rest to return to a semi-natural state as biodiversity reservoirs.
Even one-metre field edges between hedgerows and crops benefit wildlife; ‘beetle bank’ strips across the middle of fields provide small mammal and invertebrate habitats. Vegetation buffers along watercourses can protect stream life, aid flood mitigation, and improve drinking water quality.
Down on the farm …
Fortunately, the convenient truth is that agricultural production, conservation, and green energy generation can all go hand-in-hand. By helpful coincidence, English farming is also currently experiencing its biggest policy change in a generation.
The Government’s new Food Strategy includes support for locally-grown ‘high-welfare’ fruit and veg. But to make food production resilient and sustainable, farming and nature must cooperate.
Many farmers already work this way. To help others, the Government wants to: – improve rules, regulations and legal standards; fund investments in technology, equipment and innovation; give farmers a regular income to improve the environment; and provide more information and advice (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1096744/payments-for-farmers.pdf).
Government help …
In January 2023, the Government announced plans to pay farmers more for protecting and enhancing the environment under a new, fairer farming system.
They will receive increased payments for protecting and enhancing nature and producing sustainable food through the Countryside Stewardship (CS) (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/countryside-stewardship-get-funding-to-protect-and-improve-the-land-you-manage) and Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) schemes (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sustainable-farming-incentive-full-guidance/sustainable-farming-incentive-full-guidance).
CS agreements underwrite better habitat management; SFI funds soil and moorland improvements. Defra is also updating payments for one-off projects, such as hedgerow creation.
Food strategy …
The food industry, as the UK’s largest production sector, is also important in the Government’s levelling up agenda. But it depends on farmers and fishermen for high-quality produce.
The aim of the UK’s new agriculture policy is to make sustainable farming practices financially rewarding and create space for nature. It will also support measures to cut costs, support precision breeding techniques, lower pesticide use, fuel tractors with methane from slurry, and introduce new feed additives to reduce methane emissions from belching cows.
Energy-hungry greenhouse gas emitter …
On the negative side, global warming is severely effecting global food production, an example being early 2023 import supply restrictions on UK supermarket salad shelves caused by bad weather.
Another alleged villain in the plot is factory farming. This is blamed for fuelling climate change with huge CO2 and methane releases at a crucial point when developed countries are being urged to cut their emissions by circa 80% to keep average global temperature rises below 20C (https://www.ciwf.org.uk/factory-farming/environmental-damage/).
Factory farming consumes energy to rear animals and grow feed. The Royal Society has found that feed accounts for circa 75% of all farming energy, with the rest going towards factors like heating, lighting and ventilation. (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rstb.2010.0172)
Farming also produces 37% and 65% of global methane and nitrous oxide emissions through animal waste and fertiliser use. So energy use and emissions is something to watch carefully.
Capturing sunshine …
Like most industries, farming equipment, vehicles, and buildings use modern technology in the form of thermostats, time clocks, motion sensors. Tech is also central to journey planning, maintenance, training, storage and ventilation systems, grain drying, and water abstraction.
But agricultural land can be an efficient energy source too, as shown by our recent project to help develop a new solar farm that will supply sustainable energy for the next 40-years (‘Capturing Oxfordshire sunshine … with extra community benefits’ – Capturing Oxfordshire sunshine … with extra community benefits (enzygo.com)).
Harvesting energy …
However, low-cost, low-maintenance energy crops can also be turned into renewable solid, liquid and gaseous bioenergy fuels as pellets, bioethanol or biogas.
– Solid biomass is burned in thermal power stations, alone or with other fuels, and in combined heat and power (CHP) systems. A more controversial use is short rotation coppice (SRC) agriculture, where fast growing willows and poplars are grown and harvested in three to five year cycles.
– Gas biomass (methane) from whole crops – maize, Sudan grass, millet and white sweet – turned into silage and biogas can boost gas yields in low energy feedstocks like manure and spoiled grain. Arable farms with animals can meet their total energy needs by raising energy crops on 20% of their land.
– Liquid biomass – European biodiesel production from energy crops has grown steadily and covers more than 12,000 km2 in Germany. With a typical yield of 100,000 l/km2 or higher, energy crops can be economically attractive if diseases are prevented with nutrient-balanced crop rotations.
– Yes, or no? – A key question is whether biofuels are sustainable when land use changes, soil and water impacts, and competition from food or feed crops, are considered. They are carbon neutral and have low costs. But energy yields from solar farms are much higher for comparable acreages.
Last but not least, we cannot ignore the long- and short-term effects of leaving the EU
Many farmers have lost open access to their nearest export market, watched farm subsidies fall after leaving the common agricultural policy (CAP) and its replacement by the Agriculture Act 2020 (https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8702/), and seen the UK trade door opened to Australian and New Zealand rivals who already service Chinese and far eastern markets.
The new requirement for export health certificates signed off by vets has also added to the cost of food exports to Europe.
However, the Government says recent changes give farmers “for the first time in 50 years [the] chance to do things differently”. Former environment secretary George Eustice added “it makes no sense to subsidise land ownership and tenure where the largest subsidy payments too often go to the wealthiest landowners” who have the largest acreages.
Instead, farmers will be paid to look after England’s soils under the new environmental land management scheme (ELMs) – https://defrafarming.blog.gov.uk/2023/01/26/environmental-land-management-schemes-details-of-actions-and-payments/.
Critics say the changes do not go far enough, particularly in safeguarding the interests of small farmers. However, from an environmental perspective, I welcome any changes that reduce global warming, energy use, and waste generation.
Lessons from Diddly Squat Farm
Jeremy Clarkson has little time for the green movement and environmentalism, and prefers the term ‘eco-mentalists’. He says he ‘loves the destination’ of environmentalism and believes people ‘should quietly strive to be more eco-friendly’. But he has been dismissive of windfarms and renewable energy.
It is hard to be critical of someone who started his journalistic career on The Rotherham Advertiser! Perhaps the most important underlying message of his TV series is that farming is challenging. Ditto environmental responsibilities!
However, now might be a good time to take the advice of his long-suffering farm manager, Kaleb Cooper, who said recently of a possible third outing for Clarkson’s Farm, “Maybe this will be the series that Jeremy finally starts taking advice from a real farmer.”
If you would like to discuss sustainable issues linked to agriculture with a qualified and somewhat experienced ‘real’ environmental consultant, please feel free to contact me directly!
Matt Travis, Company Director, Enzygo Ltd.