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Pilot promises accurate on-farm environmental data

A new research project will bring “integrity” to emissions data and environmental impact reporting of UK agriculture, according to AHDB.

The £2.5m project, led by the levy board and Quality Meat Scotland, will baseline up to 170 farms across Great Britain. Beef, lamb, cereals, oilseeds, dairy and pork sectors will all be covered in the pilot focused on “accurate measurements to reveal the net carbon position (the balance of emissions and carbon removals/stocks) of farm businesses, including carbon sequestration potential”. 

The pilot will also provide a dataset that “shows the range and variety of results from individual farms” and allows the industry to “move away from relying on national and international averages”.

By measuring greenhouse gas emissions, landscape and soil carbon stocks, water run-off, as well as using soil analysis of individual farms, AHDB hopes the data will help to demonstrate the “real environmental benefits” of British agricultural products, both domestically and overseas. It will also provide a “more accurate reflection” of its position and progress towards net-zero.

“Agriculture faces the biggest challenge of a generation in demonstrating the positive impact that farming systems can have on the environment,” said AHDB chief executive Graham Wilkinson. “This is amplified by a lack of accurate, on-farm-level data. Our industry-first pilot will help change the story of British agriculture, which has been dominated by gross greenhouse gas emissions.”

Chris Gooderham, AHDB livestock science and environment director, said the project’s data should help illustrate the relevance of carbon stocks, the potential for increasing soil carbon storage, and any impacts on sequestration.

“Early on, we will also be able to gauge the relative capacity of above ground and below-ground carbon, the impact of farming methods and land uses on emissions, carbon stocks, biodiversity, run-off risk and soil health,” he explained. “By measuring and analysing this data, it will help us understand the critical elements that could be rolled out across the rest of the industry.”

There is huge interest in carbon sequestration currently, with some research estimating that bucket loads of carbon can be stored in soils, trees and hedgerows on farms (a process the NFU’s net-zero 2040 ambition relies on heavily). 

However, recent work has raised concerns about some of the claims. Caspar Donnison, from the UC Davis department of plant sciences, recently assessed some of the carbon neutrality claims being made by the livestock sector in the US, Europe and Australia and found that some are “too good to be true”. His paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters unpicked several studies and discovered a “distorted understanding” of the climate impact of livestock production.

Professor Pete Smith at the University of Aberdeen has also had research published in Nature Communications recently that represents a “nail in the coffin” to the idea that the emissions from the current livestock population can be ‘inset’. “My worry is that [carbon sequestration] is being oversold and used as a get-out-of-jail-free card by the livestock and dairy sector generally,” he told Just-Food.

Meat and Livestock Australia believes the 355 million hectares used for red meat production is an “opportunity to store vast amounts of carbon [and that] has always underpinned our [2030] carbon neutral goal”. But news that one of the first farms to reach carbon neutral status, in 2011, has since 2017 been emitting more emissions than it can sequester has raised further concerns about the potential of carbon sequestration to balance the emissions produced.

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