Net zero emissions in agriculture

Posted on: 16/11/2020
Vertical farming

With the UK on a mission to reach net zero emissions by 2050, the AgriFood sector is rising to the challenge.

At KTN, we are supporting companies and researchers to help drive net zero innovation. In this article we look into possible areas for innovation and highlight some examples. 

At the UN General Assembly in New York recently (22 September 2020) China committed to reduce its emissions to net zero by 2060, bringing the focus of net zero emissions to the forefront once again. China joins 20 other countries on a path to net zero including the UK, that has set a legal target of net zero emissions by 2050. These are challenging targets that are needed to mitigate climate change and related impacts such as the frequency and severity of extreme weather conditions. However, a report published in June this year by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has highlighted that the UK is at risk of failing to reach this target. 

Becoming net zero means that any emissions produced must be offset with schemes that remove them from the atmosphere such as planting trees and carbon capture and storage. There are two routes to net zero that work in tandem that are reducing and removing GHGs.  In the report published by the CCC, they outlined five investment priorities for reaching the goal of net zero, one of these is moving towards a circular economy. A circular economy is the continual use of resources, eliminating waste from the economic system. To achieve this, a business will need to look at all their waste products and create innovative ideas to reduce or reuse them. This may sound like a big undertaking but if these by-products that are produced can be turned into a marketable product there can be economic as well as ecological benefits.

Agriculture has a big role to play in the UK’s journey to Net Zero. UK agriculture is currently a contributor of GHG emissions, contributing 10% of the UK total. It also has significant potential for offsetting emissions through carbon capture turning CO2 into food, fibre and fuel. The National Farmers Union (NFU) set an even greater target to reach net-zero GHG emissions across the whole of agriculture in England and Wales by 2040. 

There are six key areas in which agriculture can lead the way for the UK to reach its net zero emissions target and we have discussed them below with some examples of innovations that could help us get there. 


Carbon Storage 

Land management is an effective way to increase carbon storage. Changes in the use of land such as growing hedgerows and woodland can help capture more carbon, and strategies such as minimising cultivation and restoration of carbon rich soil such as peatland can reduce carbon release. The government plans to implement an Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme at the end of 2024 to replace the current EU schemes. This will help support farmers in reaching net zero by encouraging them to adopt environmentally sustainable farming and forestry practices and pay for large-scale land transformational projects such as restoring peatland. Peat is the biggest store of carbon in the UK as well as creating 18.5 million tonnes of GHG emissions per year. Restoring these lands is a low-cost fast way to reduce emissions. 

Agroforestry also has the potential for mitigating emissions. Currently tree cover accounts for 13% of total land use in the UK storing around 3781 million tonnes, just over eight times the UK’s annual emissions.  The recommendation from the CCC is to increase this to 17-19%. Agroforestry could provide a potential opportunity to combine tree production with agriculture. However, there is currently little agroforestry in the UK, or related R&D about how UK farmers could successfully implement such systems. The main barrier to land conversion to Agroforestry is the financial impact of the cost of the establishment to the loss of income from livestock or crops. This can be mitigated by research into potentially profitable options such as fruit or nut trees and support packages that help with the upfront costs and lag time before the new system is profitable. One example of an agroforestry system from elsewhere in the world is Carbon Neutral Brazilian Beef, an integrated crop-livestock-forest system (ICLF) to help mitigate GHG emissions in beef production in Brazil. 

Another area of carbon storage that is gaining traction is seaweed farming. Seaweed offers a new area of carbon storage without clearing or converting land. It is also a low input system as it does not need fresh water, fertilisers or pesticides. As well as creating a carbon sink it also has an economic value as the harvested seaweed can be made into food products for humans and animals and food packaging, replacing plastics.  


Novel production systems 

Vertical farming is also being developed as an alternative to traditional agriculture, with the potential to increase output per land area. Vertical farming not only reduces the land needed to produce food but also significantly reduces other inputs such as water and pesticides. It also has the potential to reduce transport emissions and food waste as it enables produce to be grown locally and on-demand. The James Hutton Institute in Scotland, together with Intelligent Growth Solutions Ltd have created a vertical farming system designed to overcome the main barriers currently facing this technology; the cost of power and labour and the ability to produce at scale consistently. The vertical farming business InFarm secured UKRI funding of over £3 million to upscale their vertical farming that can be used in supermarkets. Its ‘instore farm’ uses less land, 95% less water, 75% less fertilizer and zero pesticides compared to conventional agriculture. These farms are cloud-connected so can be remotely controlled. Being a controlled system means that they can maximise the productivity of the plant through a range of monitoring sensors and are not affected by adverse weather patterns. 

Lufa Farms in Canada has started to utilise empty urban rooftops to grow food and reduce energy inputs at the same time.  Funded by the Ellen MacArthur foundation they install glasshouses on urban structures enabling them to produce food using no new land at the same time as reducing inputs. They irrigate with only rainwater in closed-loop systems, use no synthetic pesticides and use half the amount of energy to heat compared with ground-level glasshouses.


Improving Product Efficiency

Agriculture can reduce GHG emissions by increasing yield and reducing inputs.  New technologies such as precision farming and improvements to breeding have been discussed in our previous article. 

Gamaya, a company based in Switzerland, uses big data, precision farming, hyperspectral imaging and artificial intelligence to provide tailored recommendations to farmers.  They help farmers to optimise land management and use water, fertilisers, chemicals and fuel more efficiently by generating maps that show nutrient deficiencies, disease infections and pest and weed infestations. This company uses multiple technologies across the whole farming system to deliver agronomy solutions.

Reducing inputs is important but there is still a need for products such as fertilisers within agriculture. ‘Crystal Green’ is a fertiliser that is made from waste products from sewage treatment plants. They use phosphate-absorbing bacteria to remove phosphorus from pipeworks that can cause costly maintenance issues. They then turn it into a fertiliser that is not water-soluble so also reduces the problem of leaching and runoff. This effective product tackles two problems in one by creating a phosphorus fertilizer that is a finite resource with no synthetic alternative and also adds value to the treatment plants as they can reduce maintenance costs and create a new revenue stream. 

Livestock is often flagged as a producer of emissions; however, the NFU states that net zero can be achieved without reducing the number of livestock, and there are several important points to consider. UK produced beef produces half as much GHG per kilo of meat as the global average and our dairy herd emissions are lower still. Though changes in diets and land use are seen as part of the path to net zero we also must consider that livestock is only viable production in some areas of UK as they can utilise land not suitable for crop production (around 60% of UK farmland is only suitable for growing grass), as well as being important to the local community, and rural economies and communities. So we must look at ways of reducing GHG emissions in livestock production instead of eliminating livestock completely. There are multiple ways to mitigate GHG emissions in livestock though food additives and breeding to reduce methane production to improving animal health and productivity. Charles Sercombe a UK sheep farmer used data to drive a reduction in time taken to fatten up lambs by 30 days. He used electronic identification to record key performance indicators to improve productivity that in turn means lower GHG emissions. 

Livestock that is fed entirely on grass and other forages with no concentrated feeds will create carbon sinks and reduce the use of nitrogen fertilisers used in the production of grain feeds. The drawback to this is that the forage can be harder to digest increasing methane emissions. However, if this practice is combined with the diversification of grassland species and the use of legumes in the grazing rotation there will be larger carbon sequestration as well as an improvement in soil health and biodiversity. There is also a certification for pasture-fed products increasing the value for farmers. 

The Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock has also recently published a report titled ‘Net Zero Carbon and UK livestock’. This report has identified eight areas of opportunity to advance the livestock industry towards net zero carbon at pace and with efficacy. 


Renewable Energy & Bioeconomy 

With over 40% of energy supply in the UK coming from gas and coal-fired power stations, a move towards renewable energy is the obvious path. When speaking to the UN recently (22nd September 2020) British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he wanted to turn the UK into the “Saudi Arabia” of wind power. Before GHG emissions can be fully displaced with renewable energy, REACT-FIRST led by Deep Branch Biotechnology, have come up with an innovative way to use waste carbon dioxide from Drax Power’s Selby power station. They received a grant from UKRI to develop their unique CO2-to-protein process that will use the waste CO2 to produce food products for fish and poultry. This product will have a reduced carbon footprint of up to 75%, minimal water usage and no arable land compared to traditional counterparts.  


Manufacturing and transport 

When talking about net zero emissions in agriculture, a system approach is needed looking across the whole supply chain to include manufacturing and transport. We have seen how vertical farming has the potential to reduce transport and there have been a lot of innovations in food packaging. As mentioned above seaweed can replace plastic packaging. According to a report by the Center for International Environmental Law in 2019, Bio-packaging can reduce CO2 emissions by 1.9 tons for every ton of plastic replaced.  British Sugar’s Factory in Norfolk has taken big steps to become net zero and embraced a circular economy. They took each step of their process and either reduced waste or turned it into new products. They have built a bioethanol plant on site so can reduce waste by assessing demand and switching to bioethanol production to prevent surplus. They now sell waste CO2 as a product to glasshouses and refrigeration companies, and waste soil washed off the sugar beet as topsoil and aggregate. 


Carbon Calculators and credits

There are several carbon calculators available to businesses that can be used to calculate their carbon footprint and highlight areas for improvement; three have recently been reviewed on Farmers’ Weekly. As we have seen from some of the examples above there are many economic benefits to these ecological changes, and tools like these will be important to help monitor progress and decision making going forward. As we have seen from some of the examples above, there are new carbon trading systems that are starting to develop in the sector that allows farmers to trade or sell their stored carbon. This can add a further economic boost to enable farmers to instigate the changes needed to reach net zero. Two examples of these emerging markets are Nori and the Terraton Initiative by Indigo Carbon.  Indigo has two new methods for measuring farmer’s net GHG emissions as well as creating a list of buyers that includes Barclays and JPMorgan. 


Closing Comment 

Agriculture has the potential to be at the forefront of net zero innovation and lead the UK to reach its 2050 target.  To achieve this goal and those set by the NFU there needs to be a clear and well-funded roadmap that considers the whole food system.  While individual practices can be looked at in isolation, there can be advantages associated with combinations of practices in farming systems, such as the pasture-fed livestock production and agroforestry.  For farmers to contribute to the emissions target a series of measures across all systems simultaneously needs to be taken.  If done well these ecological changes can pose threefold benefits by mitigating GHG emissions, adapting our agriculture to the changing climate and increase productivity. This will involve a range of stakeholders working in collaboration, the KTN has been thinking about its role in connecting business, research and funding to drive the change needed to deliver a Net Zero future for the UK. You can find out more about KTN’s work on Net Zero here.


If you’re working on an innovation in the AgriFood sector and would like support to find funding and/or collaborate with others, please feel free to contact the KTN AgriFood team.


This article was written by Sophia Bellamy, a PhD student at the University of Reading and NIAB EMR, during her 3-months placement with the AgriFood team at KTN.

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