Farming has long played a valuable role in Welsh culture, economy and heritage, a beacon of resilience in the quest to overcome the obstacles that come before us. A recent publication from NFU Cymru focused my attention to the part Wales can play in a green recovery, I feel it is vital that we understand how Welsh agriculture operates and is to move forwards writes Tobias Read.
According to a 2016 report by the former National Assembly for Wales (now officially the Senedd Cymru) some 88% of Welsh land is potentially utilised for agricultural use with a further 75% of this area designated ‘Least Favourable Land’ (LFA). The reason for such a tag has much to do with the geography of Wales, the iconic terrain seen in mountains, hills and forests present a challenge to Welsh agriculture that England faces to a far lesser extent. However due to the true spirit of the dragon we see this natural barrier overcome by adopting different farming practices. If land is unsuitable for arable growth be it a result of rocky earth, poor soil, weather, space or a million other unique factors, we still often find these regions able to accommodate livestock such as cattle and sheep where grazing pasture is found. The reason I highlight this is because it represents the larger picture within the agricultural sector, finding simple ways to maximise utility or reach goals.
The NFU Cymru and NFU have together set a target for net zero Agri greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2040, 10 years in advance of the Welsh governments 2050 target. Nationally the agricultural sector in the UK accounts for 10% of GHG emissions however the predominate released gas differs from other major sectors as its main discharges are largely nitrogen or methane based rather than carbon dioxide.
Agriculture holds a distinctive opportunity for green recovery being both a GHG sink and emitter, while it produces Methane (CH4), Nitrous Oxide (No2) and Carbon dioxide (Co2) it also sequesters these gasses in production processes. Therefore, there is an opening to stimulate negative emissions from changed and improved agricultural practices. Wales may not represent much in the way of potential land management changes due to its geography and land use, meaning nitrogen discharges may be more difficult to lessen via reducing soil disturbance and altering fertilisers that promote crop growth, there are still key changes to be made. According to a report by Aberystwyth University in 2014 it was found that in the UK the agricultural sector is responsible for up to 38% of methane emissions with 85% of this being from livestock gas secretions such as burping.
Given the predominance of livestock farming and particularly dairy in the Welsh agricultural sector it should be a priority for Welsh farmers, scientists and engineers to lead the charge in mitigating the emissions from cattle, sheep and alike. Solutions currently on the table include feed additives, gene editing and generally improving the health of livestock though pasture type is also an area to consider. Methane is produced by bacteria and living organisms so by advancing research into factors such as feed and genetics a solution may be found that reduces this output. The flip side is to decrease the emission of other gas types more considerably to offset difficulty in reducing emissions from natural biological process of animals which could potentially represent ethical concerns.
The capture of carbon and increasing links with the energy sector might provide solace for some struggling Welsh farms by diversifying income while providing resources for renewable energy projects. Waste such as manure is rich in methane, nitrogen, and carbon. Burning products such as these presents an opportunity to sustainably fire energy production, the combustion of methane creates Co2 and Water, carbon from this process can be sequestered while water may be returned to provide further utility or back to the natural water cycle.
However, use of biological waste must be done in balance, as the sector should be careful to maintain its natural fertilisers such as dung in its farming practices if it isn’t to trigger an increased demand for the manufacture of engineered nitrogen based products. In the Welsh Arable sector waste products such as stalks and leaves can be used in biofuel projects where it will not interfere with common farming practices such as use of straw for livestock bedding. This highlights how there cannot be a one size fits all farm’s approach as the circumstances of each individual vary greatly, yet the general principles of altered farming practices can be shared.
Other aspects of a green future for agriculture might include making use of areas such as farm buildings where often large roof cover exists and might be suited to installation of solar panels. Making use of wasted space by fitting eco-friendly systems could aid in offsetting carbon footprints in agricultural businesses. But the greatest change for the greatest impact needs to seen in how working practices can be altered to help reach the NFUs 2040 target, after all these methods are the life blood of agricultural operation. While investment into technologies such as electric powertrains for farm vehicles is important it isn’t enough. Wales can take a lead in reimaging how agriculture is conducted sustainably by making use of the resilience already ingrained in its farmers, the academics it has in its great universities and the general desire to progress.
These changes however need to backed in policy, the UK and Welsh governments need to work together to promote a new agricultural strategy that will support these initiatives. The end of the EUs common agricultural policy in the UK marks a new opportunity to promote new practices. Incentives will be key as ultimately despite being a way of life for many farming is also a livelihood in Wales, employing 53,000 people between fulltime, part-time and seasonal workers in 2016.
The cost of changes therefore needs to be financially and research supported to make economic sense for all sizes of farm holdings. Undoubtedly this will require cooperation between many shareholders including; NGOs, research groups, farmers and government agencies. Wales is situated to promote a green future for farming and potentially cash in while doing so, the sector and the Welsh Government need to take a lead in the green recovery and the future of green agriculture.
Tobias Read is the Political Secretary for Cardiff University Conservative Association.