With the coronavirus crisis looming, the 6th Sustainable Futures conference took place at York Rugby club with over 100 farmers and industry in attendance. The aim of the conference was to outline the work of the Sustainable Futures and Sustainable Landscapes projects in relation to soil health, carbon management and opportunities around carbon capture within the supply chain.

Steve Cann opened the conference outlining to delegates that their big opportunity could be where they are right now if carbon projects such as those run by the projects were taken up by the supply chain.

Neil Fuller from Atlas Biosystems set the scene for the event with his presentation on Zero Carbon Farming. Global population growth from 3 billion to 7 billion and the increase in calories consumed has meant the food required to be grown by farmers has tripled in the last 50 years. Farmers around the world currently grow enough food to feed 9 billion people yet food waste means this does not happen. In the last 40 years, Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels have increased from 300ppm to 400ppm, the highest in 14 million years. This increase has raised surface temperatures by 1oC which to crops, land and livestock equates to moving a farm 500 miles further south. The estimated annual cost of soil degradation to UK soils is £1.2billion per year and 70% of UK arable soils currently have a soil organic carbon content below 20kg/Ha, a 48% loss since 1940. However, appropriate soil management practices could increase the carbon stock back into the soil and an increase of 0.4% across the world’s soils could reduce atmospheric carbon by 2-3oC, in simple terms, the climate emergency could be fixed within one to two generations by fixing carbon at farm level.

Jenni Dungait, Soil Health Expert, speaking about the opportunities to sequester carbon on farmland to improve soil health

 

The amount of organic carbon stored in soil is dependent on soil biology (root microbe interactions), chemistry (nutrition, pH and CEC) and physics (sand, silt, clay proportions and structure) to which the balance of each equates to the soil functionality and health and therefore yield and carbon sequestration potential. Neil explained how it would, therefore, be possible to produce zero carbon bread. Half the carbon footprint of a bread loaf relates to how wheat is grown and therefore by farmers producing zero carbon wheat and the supply chain decreasing their carbon footprint, zero-carbon bread can be produced. 55% of the carbon footprint of wheat relates to Nitrogen (N) use, 23% to N manufacture, 10% to harvesting and storage, 5% to seed drilling and 6% to crop protection. The amount of N required by crop can be reduced by planting a cover crop which stores more N in the soil, therefore reducing the amount required artificially and hence decreasing a crops carbon footprint.

Neil demonstrated the results of this year’s Sustainable Landscapes cover crops which clearly showed how they benefited not only the soil and carbon capture but also produced gains and savings at farm level. In 70 to 90 days after planting of the Sustainable Landscapes mix, 20 to 40 tonnes/Ha of biomass was produced with a nutrient interception of 40 to 120 kg/Ha of Nitrogen with the added benefits of weed, pest and disease suppression and a potential forage area for sheep. Neil explained that there is a requirement for carbon counting and validation but the potential for farmers and carbon trading is massive. For example, an emissions trading scheme using cover crops as part of the carbon trading could be worth £20-30/t in the next ten years. With the UK being the first major economy aiming to be carbon neutral and regulators likely to use carbon costs to enforce a decrease, buying carbon to offset carbon liability could be central to this. Farmers are set to be in a unique position to be able to offer a carbon sink to other industries to reduce atmospheric carbon.

The second speaker of the day discussing soil and water synergy was Andrew Walker from Yorkshire Water. He talked through a number of Yorkshire Water projects and partners that allow the company to supply 1.2billion litres of clean water every day. The Sustainable Landscapes project was initially launched to improve water quality through catchment solutions rather than at treatment works. An example of this being at Elvington treatment works where 23,000t sediment is removed from the water per year, 11Ha worth of soil. Research and feedback from projects such as Sustainable Landscapes have resulted in the increased focus of DEFRA on soil management, especially in the new ELMS scheme.

Andrew talked through the Sustainable Landscapes projects and how knowledge transfer has been the key to encourage farmers within the project to undertake cover crop trials, many of which are now using them across much wider areas after seeing the benefits. As part of the project, The Good Soils Guide has also been produced which will soon be available to all farmers on the Sustainable Landscapes website.

David Miller a Nuffield Scholar from Wheatsheaf Farming Company made the trip north from Hampshire to present at the conference. He talked through the farming practices used at Wheatsheaf Farm over the last 12 years as they have implemented the principles of conservation agriculture and integrated pest management across their 1800 acres to improve soil health, increase farm yields and decrease costs. He talked through their cropping of half winter-sown wheat, barley, rape and beans and half spring-sown after cover crops of barley, linseed and peas. The crops are established using a Claydon straw rake, cross slot zero-till drill and 12m cousins rolls. The farm started growing cover crops in 2010 and uses cover crop analysis to assess the benefits. For example, a good looking cover crop could use many nutrients in the soil and the following spring barley, therefore, has less to utilise. David discussed theoretical and realistic learning curves when introducing new systems on the farm but that the hard work is now paying off with worm, beneficial insect and fungi counts greatly improved indicating much healthier soils together with big financial benefits of cover crop use. They have resulted in a 10% reduction in fertiliser use, 30% reduction in fuel use, 30% reduction in labour requirement and no potash fertiliser required for the past 6 years. In addition to this, the reduction in nitrogen use and cultivation has greatly decreased CO2 emissions and the use of cover crops and improved organic matter has increased carbon capture.

Mark Suthern, National Head of Agriculture at Barclays Bank then took to the stage to discuss how carbon could be a new opportunity for UK agriculture but that the industry and whole supply chain has a long way to go without benchmarking and measurement of carbon uptake. He discussed why carbon is so important to climate change and why, following the McKinsey report, the UK is now aiming for net-zero by 2050. In order for farm businesses to start to address this he set out how individual farms should make a plan of assets they want to improve, why they want to improve them and how to get there. The challenges for the balance of the UK/Global food system were discussed as there is a need to balance food supply, population growth and urbanisation, growing economies, water availability, labour, environment and energy together with general diet and health of populations. He questioned how the carbon market could fit into this and how there needs to be a standardised carbon measurement so this can occur. Mark also discussed how it was important for farm businesses to focus on margin, not yields and how knowing the cost of production was paramount to this. The next few years will be important to farmers with the reduction of BPS and the introduction of ELMS and that if carbon trading were to become part of the farm business, it is still at the embryonic stage and therefore it is important to do carbon audits to provide a benchmark for future possible schemes.

Soil Health Expert, Jenni Dungait then presented on Repaying the Soil Carbon Debt. Jenni is a globally renowned soil scientist with 18 years of academic research in soil biogeochemistry. She explained that the amount of carbon that can be stored in soils is finite and that there is a carbon debt of 12,000 years on global soils. Globally 133 billion tonnes of carbon has been lost from soils so there is an opportunity; especially in the mid-latitudes where the highest proportions of these losses have occurred to put carbon back in. This is not only beneficial to sequester carbon from the atmosphere but the higher the soil organic carbon the better the soil quality and health. There are few technologies to suck carbon out of the atmosphere but we do know how it can be sequestered back into soils. Jenni showed different land uses and their carbon sequestration activity and that the fossil fuel use to drill various crops also needed to be taken into account. The opportunity to offset carbon footprints is there but it is better to reduce the carbon use in the first place and therefore a benchmark is required first. Jenni discussed methods to increase soil carbon including the encouragement of deeper routes, decreasing tillage and increasing organic matter.

The winners of the 2019 Sustainable Landscapes cover crop competition were then announced by Steve Cann and each presented with a spade! Steve explained that in the first year of the competition the judging was visual but this year the crops were analysed by Clive Wood from Kings, Yara and Lancrop.

The winners were:

  • Shiptonthorpe Pilot – John Kirby
  • Topcliffe Pilot – Graham Potter
  • Elvington Pilot and overall winner – Richard Bramley

Clive Wood presenting John Kirby with his award

 

Clive Wood presenting Graham Potter with his award

 

Clive Wood presenting Richard Bramley with his award

 

A panel discussion then took place to debate the forthcoming Agriculture Bill and the new Environmental Land Management Scheme. On the expert panel were Mark Tucker (YARA UK), Tony Bell and Richard Bramley (Yorkshire Farmers), Andrew Walker (Yorkshire Water), Clive Wood (Kings Crops) and it was chaired by Dr Nigel Davies of Muntons plc. The panel discussed the role of farmers in achieving a zero-carbon food and farming sector and how ELMS may have an impact of how this could be implemented. There is hope that the agriculture bill will protect farmers from a ‘fight to the bottom’ but enough details about this are not yet known. Re-wilding was discussed and whether this is the right way to mitigate climate change. It was argued that rewilding should be in targeted areas and that it is more beneficial for areas to be managed for specific reasons or species.

The future of farming and whether it is ready for the biggest challenges in the next 10 years, including the effect of decreased support payments was discussed together with how farmers need collective responsibility to drive change in the industry. Whether the public will pay more of sustainably produced goods was also an interesting talking point.

The expert panel, Tony Bell a Yorkshire farmer, Andrew Walker of Yorkshire Water, Richard Bramley a Yorkshire farmer, Clive Wood of Kings Crops and Mark Tucker of YARA UK, chaired by Dr Nigel Davies of Muntons plc.

 

Paul Rhodes then presented to summarise the conference. He discussed the aims of the projects as profiting from sustainability and how the Sustainable Futures project works collaborating with knowledge sharing within the supply chain. He discussed the Sustainable Futures ‘Travel to Learn’ trip to the USA and how meeting farmers there such as Gabe Brown have influenced soil management theory and practice here in the UK. He discussed ongoing projects such as Wold Top Brewery producing the first zero-carbon beer and the introduction of a Nitrogen super league within the Sustainable Landscapes project groups.

Paul also introduced the notion that cover crops are like an arable ‘Pop-Up Rainforest’ with different levels of canopy providing habitat for insects and animals, together with sequestering large amounts of CO2 in the small amount of time they are growing. In comparison to trees, cover crops sequester large amounts of carbon in a short space of time and therefore could be more beneficial in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere than tree planting. It is important therefore for this to be made real through carbon audits, linking with existing farm records and securing industry accreditation to allow the farming industry to move forward in profiting from improved sustainability on-farm.