Farming Forum Grassroots Group – Written evidence (NSD0003)



This evidence is submitted by The Farming Forum Grassroots Group, a group of 14 farmers (listed below). We all interact through “The Farming Forum”, an online network for farmers, and all manage grassland. We span a range of different landscape and activity types from Eastern Counties Lowland to Welsh Upland and from predominately sheep to completely dairy. The factors we all share are: adoption of an “Agroecological” or “Holistic” approach to our land management, a deep concern for the ecological damage done to British farmland across the last 60+ years and concern at the ever-declining profitability of the average British livestock farm. We do not claim to represent the views of the other users of The Farming Forum.


We would welcome any opportunity, either as a group or by a nominated representative, to discuss our evidence with the Committee during the inquiry.

We Address your inquiry terms of reference in your order.


1. What is the potential scale of the contribution that nature-based solutions can make to decarbonisation in the UK?

Addressing our climate challenge using NbS requires fundamental change in how we manage land. The vast majority of UK land is managed by farmers therefore any attempt to address climate issues by NbS must involve farmers in both design and implementation. The largest sub-sector managing this landscape are, often small, family farming businesses who have both their roots and their future heavily invested in making the landscape work economically, socially and ecologically. Historically these smaller mixed family farms managed their land in a sensitive manner however the move towards agribusiness and monoculture, based on external professional advice and corporate market pressure, has negatively impacted the environment. The average UK farm is still only 80ha. These family farms will be fundamental to providing sympathetic, genuine and “honest” change, as they often have an emotional connection to, and care for, their landscape.


Our most carbon rich land is peat bogs, woodland and permanent pasture and these land uses are significant existing carbon sinks.[1] All other land uses retain significantly less carbon. The greatest UK land based carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions are from conventionally managed cropland. Notably, much of this is the most productive UK (ibid). Calls to cut livestock and so free grazed land for other purposes risk significantly releasing carbon and are thus antithetical to NbS climate mitigation. Well managed pasture can easily sequester several tonnes of carbon per hectare per year. Given that latest DEFRA figures show 4.14 million hectares of grazed pasture in England alone, this has great potential to sequester atmospheric carbon.[2] Intensively cultivated arable land can emit many tonnes of carbon per hectare per year under certain management. Recent studies have shown that even swapping pasture for trees can emit large quantities of carbon, taking many decades to recapture the original carbon lost.[3]


Hedgerows have huge potential for additional carbon capture in the UK context when managed appropriately. Estimates of UK hedgerow length vary but at least 250,000 miles is a conservative figure. Increasing the biomass of this habitat type can clearly capture significant additional atmospheric carbon. However, it is essential that the other functionality of hedgerows, especially as linear connecting wildlife corridors, is considered equally alongside carbon sequestration. Flexible management could also see them rotationally used for biomass on farm as part of their management cycle if flexibility replaced current “one size fits all” hedgerow guidance.


It has been increasingly demonstrated that even our oldest pastures can actually increase in carbon content under the most effective management regimes, those seeking to closely mimic natural grazing. In this way a large proportion of UK farmland could actually capture and retain significant additional carbon, thereby contributing greatly to our national mitigation effort. Many researchers and commentators claim this is impossible claiming that pasture soil carbon levels plateau at near current levels. These same voices ignore that issue in established woodland. However studies are now showing that, with adaptive grazing management, pasture can steadily increase soil depth in addition to increasing soil organic matter levels thereby overcoming this limitation. This well managed pasture is also, serendipitously, amongst the most biodiverse of UK landscapes and thus helps reverse biodiversity loss.


A major cause of land based climate warming is from manufactured fertiliser use across all farmed landscapes. Robert Elliot showed in the 1890’s that pasture based systems can readily increase output, even by today’s standards, by appropriate management without requiring manufactured fertilisers.[4] Utilising the same idea, that of maximising solar energy inflow into living soil cover, can also significantly reduce the need for arable cropping to use climate damaging manufactured fertilisers without compromising crop yields.


The potential for agro-ecologically based land management to reduce existing land-based emissions and to increase land-based sequestration is generally greatly underestimated.


2. What major scientific uncertainties persist in understanding the effects of nature-based solutions and affect their inclusion in carbon accounting, and how can these uncertainties be addressed?

The 6th IPCC Climate Assessment Report has gone some considerable way to addressing scientific uncertainties that have plagued policy responses to the climate emergency. It recognises that assessing methane releases using GWP100 distorts the assessment of their warming impact and skews lifecycle assessments. These have hitherto underpinned the calls for reducing UK livestock production. It strongly recommends globally cutting methane output, in order to buy time to deeply cut carbon dioxide emissions, but recognises that the two must go hand in hand. If the carbon dioxide emissions cuts do not follow then the methane cuts will have been completely wasted. It goes further to state that deep carbon dioxide cuts are essential to meet climate targets.


The report recognises that methane emission increases greatly impact climate warming and that methane emission reductions actually cause climate cooling, effectively advising the adoption of the GWP* assessment for methane. It recognises that methane emissions are mainly rising in Asia, the Americas and Eastern Europe but falling in Western Europe. This has huge implications for current UK climate policy. These new understandings undermine the case for further reducing UK livestock numbers and widely replacing UK grassland with forest. The report further recognizes that the global coal, oil and gas sector emits as much methane as the global livestock sector and recognizes that this methane is of fossil origin so has a greater impact than enteric emissions.


Even GWP* does not recognise that for every carbon atom emitted by a grazing ruminant, at least one carbon atom has been removed from the atmosphere by the plant the animal has grazed. It is telling that in UK climate policy carbon dioxide emissions from both ruminants and people, are never measured for their impact on global warming, despite CO2 being a much longer-lasting gas than methane in the atmosphere.


There is also a need to account for nutrient density of foods in relation to their greenhouse gas emissions. It has been shown, even using the flawed GWP100 model, that beef emits fewer GHG emissions per 100g of nutrients than virtually any other foodstuff and does so using around 86% human inedible feeds.[5]

Well managed ruminant grazing is a key solution, contrary to current public discourse.[6] Rising global ruminant numbers ARE driving a warming impact but UK ruminant numbers have been falling for decades. Policy needs to recognise this and target UK demand for overseas ruminant meat rather than vilify our own producers.


The science of soil carbon measurement is not entirely settled. The IPCC AR6 report states that considerable uncertainty still exists around soil carbon flux measurement, especially soil carbon sequestration. It is widely recognised that soils have the potential to be the largest carbon stores on land, exceeding that of forests by some considerable margin. Practitioners around the world are, however, demonstrating impressive increases in soil carbon content under carefully managed grazing but the science is lagging well behind. Rothamstead North Wyke, amongst others, are doing valuable research on this.


Finally, the IPCC AR6 report recognises that evidence is emerging of trees increasing methane emissions from land in some studies. It characterises the issue as low certainty and requiring further study but this could have implications for policies around afforestation of farmland.



3. What frameworks already exist for the regulation and financing of nature-based solutions?

Where nature-based solutions can be combined with ongoing production of quality food then those solutions will be the cheapest to deliver. Where, by contrast, they are delivered as a single-purpose land use, most likely by conservation charities and other NGO's, they will be much more expensive for the equivalent unit of climate impact reduction. For this reason we must use a multi-factorial approach to assessing solutions rather than a siloed approach of looking only at the climate impact.


The current absence of efficient and effective regulation of NbS are of concern. Government’s apparent willingness to allow business and third sector operators in the NbS arena to set their own frameworks against which to be measured and held accountable poses a major risk of effective under-delivery and of mis-use to achieve “greenwashing”. Indeed, a new report from Oxfam points out that the fossil fuel industry are hiding behind “offsetting” such that effective delivery of their promises would raise global food prices by around 80% and leave many countries short of food producing land.[7]


4. Who are the key stakeholders for the implementation of nature-based solutions in the UK? How can stakeholders’ expertise and concerns inform the incentives and requirements for implementing nature-based solutions?

Key stakeholders are land owners, farmers and other land managers (recognising that many are tenants in a UK context), climate researchers and Government. To date far too much focus has been on process and media savvy NGO’s and campaigners when the vast majority of UK land is actually managed by farmers. Fully representative input from the whole diversity of farming businesses is critical to creating a dynamic and productive climate mitigation strategy for the UK. This will require innovative approaches as none of the usual farmer representative bodies adequately represent the diversity and nuance of UK farm businesses.


Our group is an example of engaged farming land managers who are poorly represented by the usual organisations. For a national scheme to deliver maximum benefit it is essential that those developing any NbS scheme seek out and fully engage with the widest range of farmer groups at all levels and across all landscape types. These will include: large representative bodies (NFU, CLA, TFA, etc), Specialism organisations (NSA, NBA, Soil Association, PFLA, LEAF, NFFN etc), Farmer discussion groups, Farm Cluster Groups, Commoner Associations and smaller ad hoc groups like us, the TFF Grassroots Group.


5. How should implementation of nature-based solutions be integrated with other government policies for landscapes and seascapes, for example, agricultural, forestry, and land-use planning policies?

Before implementing nature-based solutions, we consider it is important to define what is “nature” and what is “natural”. A natural environment achieves resilience through diversity. Monocultures don’t exist in nature with plants, animals, insects, bacteria, fungi etc at every trophic level. Sunlight capture is maximized and the water, mineral, carbon and energy cycles are all functioning correctly. Nature-based solutions need to replicate this. Embracing this whilst still producing human food is the “cheapest” all-round solution available.


The Government aspires, through the new agri-environment schemes and the 25 year Environment Plan, to transition to more nature-based food production. Key to realising these aims will be a combination of agroforestry and diverse herbal leys.


We note that DEFRA are running an agroforestry test and trial as part of the ELM scheme co-design and yet the rules of the England Woodland Creation Offer seem designed to avoid agroforestry. There seems to be a disjunction in DEFRA’s approach toward combining woodland with productive farming. We fully support Lord Teverson’s agroforestry amendment to The Environment Bill to specifically facilitate agroforestry being recognized as an important part of the nature based solution to climate change.


The ‘forestry’ part of agroforestry will need to encompass trees, bushes and shrubs, moving towards a ‘permaculture’ system, to have most beneficial effect. Likewise, “herbal leys” exhibit great diversity, contrary to the majority of current UK grassland, and capture significantly more carbon as a result. The Sustainable Farming Incentive and Environmental Land Management Scheme should include a fully-funded knowledge exchange framework to help farmers embrace these principles.


Pasture cropping, where crops and animals are raised on the same area of land at different times of the year, is being successfully trialled in the UK and elsewhere with potential to massively reduce fertiliser and agrochemical use whilst increasing sequestration of carbon into the soil. Growing a diverse range of plants in the same field has long been recognised as beneficial, so the next advance in crop production should be towards companion sowing of complimentary arable crops (growing wheat with legumes for example). Likewise, a diversity of animals will be beneficial and livestock enterprise stacking, where different classes of livestock use the same land area jointly or sequentially, would raise output whilst reducing costs by mimicking nature. On land this should be a clear cross-cutting priority within all DEFRA policy. All policies must be impact tested against real-world NbS effectiveness and deliverability. Research and development should be targeted at harnessing these principles.



6. How should nature-based solutions be planned and monitored at the national level?

Land managers need to be afforded the flexibility to achieve outcomes based on sound science and reliable measures. We understand that achieving broader landscape and environmental outcomes, such as increasing soil organic matter for example, will inevitably achieve many of the other relevant environmental gains desired by government such as sequestration of atmospheric carbon, improved water holding capacity, reduced flood risk, improved soil health and an increase in the nutrient density of food. This can be measured with relative simplicity and a good degree of accuracy. How the land manager achieves this landscape outcome will be dependent on the context of the grower within his or her landscape and can take many different forms.


Diversity is key, both recognizing it and applying it. A "one size fits all" solution will not deliver. Instead we need mixed projects in every region encouraging biodiversity alongside carbon mitigation.


Ideally each farm would create a custom "Farm Management plan", recognising the unique features of our land, our knowledge and our infrastructure, to deliver the diverse policy aims of government within a socially, ecologically and financially sustainable business. Government departments would help us implement that plan and would monitor and reward our progress at a local level as a partnership. This could be by landscape character areas as a minimum but water sub-catchment areas may be better boundaries.


13 August 2021