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Regenerative agriculture: helping farmers to reduce emissions

In the first of our series looking at sustainable approaches to farming, Rachael Watson, Head of Agriculture at Lombard, surveys the challenges of an entire industry.

Amid the challenges, however, a major transformation is under way, affecting how we produce food while emitting less, restore biodiversity and nurture ecosystems.

Agriculture accounts for nearly 11% of the UK’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. So shifts toward nature-friendly regenerative and agroecological production methods are vital in fighting climate change. Yet we must remember that farmers are much more than food producers: they are our land stewards and hold the key to the environmental and social outcomes we seek. How they produce food in a more sustainable manner while managing such things as improving soil health, enhancing biodiversity, and reducing the impact of synthetic inputs is no easy challenge to overcome. 

Why?

As we know, this transformation is taking place at a point of crisis and farmers are being squeezed on many sides. Notably: 

  • they need to provide affordable food
  • they face labour challenges 
  • inflation on costs of production, hampered by unpredictable contracts

How can supply chains work together on climate change?

Given that agriculture represents a large share of scope 3 emissions (explained here by the Carbon Trust) in the supply chains of manufacturers and retailers, I believe reducing GHG emissions should be a shared challenge. Whether it is the costs of investing in new equipment, taking up new practices, meeting new standards, reporting or verification, the burden must be equitable.

In the background, policy change and current financial rewards do not effectively incentivise environmental and social outcomes. This is why we now see that one of the solutions for farmers is diversification. It means not having all your eggs in one basket and trying to spread the risk by having a number of different income streams, especially on land that is not suitable for farming practices. However, we should not see dwindling farmer numbers and a reliance on imported food, such as fruit and vegetables, because support is lacking and diversification is not a panacea. 

To improve humanity’s impact on the climate, therefore, we will need to change the way we approach agriculture in the future. Regenerative agriculture is one of many possible solutions, even if its widespread adoption will take time. 

What does regenerative agriculture mean?

In short, this farming approach encourages the soil’s natural biological and mineral systems to flourish. In turn this leads to richer, more productive soil and an environment in which people, crops, farm animals and wildlife can all thrive. Its principles include: 

  • Trapping carbon rather than releasing carbon.
  • Diversifying what’s grown, thereby reducing inputs of energy and agrochemicals, and decreasing the negative effects of intensive agriculture on soil quality, water pollution, eutrophication, emissions of GHGs, soil erosion, and loss of biodiversity.
  • Adding animals into the rotation for natural fertiliser. 
  • Rewilding, which offers alternative income streams for landowners. Ideally large areas of land are used as they can offer wildlife a more diverse habitat. 

The NFU aims to achieve net-zero GHG emissions in agriculture by 2040, 10 years prior to the UK target of 2050. That’s ambitious. Among the many challenges, every farm will start the journey to net zero from a different place. For many, the first part of being able to manage emissions on farm comes by being able to measure it. As yet the industry lacks a single, universal emissions calculator and many face using their own spreadsheets. 

What support are we looking to offer?

As a Bank we have made significant progress in turning our climate ambition into action since NatWest Group CEO’s Alison Rose DBE set out our climate strategy in 2020. I am delighted that NatWest Group has been awarded the Sustainable Market Initiative’s (SMI) Terra Carta Seal, and in the coming months we will be sharing more news and views on what Lombard is doing to help agriculture do better. 

Whether that is our involvement with organisations such as the Sustainable Poultry Network, or the support we offer farmers looking to invest for sustainability, there is plenty to get involved with and learn from. 

Here are more ideas on how to make your business FutureFit

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