Dr Terry Mabbett digs into comments surrounding the Climate Change Committee’s sixth Carbon Budget – and turns up a familiar face.

THE latest UK carbon emissions target is a 78 per cent reduction by 2035 compared with 1990 levels. Climate change scientists say this is crucial to keeping any temperature rise at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. There are many ways of getting there and none more important than creating more woodland, but apparently this must be at the expense of land currently used to produce food. It all seems easy enough when you listen to the politicians, bureaucrats and scientists laying down the path to net-zero emissions enshrined in law.

In its sixth Carbon Budget, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) says the 78 per cent reduction by 2035 can be met through key steps, fourth and last of which goes under the title ‘land and greenhouse gas removals’. This avenue envisages a transformation in agriculture and the use of farmland while maintaining the same levels of food per head produced today, reading: “By 2035, 460,000 hectares (ha) of new mixed woodland will have been established to remove carbon dioxide and deliver wider environmental benefits along with 260,000 ha of farmland shifting to the production of energy crops. Net result is woodland rising from 13 per cent of UK land area today to 15 per cent by 2035 and 18 per cent by 2050. Peatlands are widely restored and managed sustainably.”

All this was signed off by the CCC, which advises the government on ways to tackle climate change and is chaired by Lord Deben. The UK government accepted the CCC’s Sixth Carbon Budget in full this April.

UK land area is 24.25 million ha, with just over 70 per cent (17.25 million ha) currently in productive agriculture – 4.92 million ha is arable with 12.33 million ha of agricultural grassland comprising permanent grassland (9.74 million ha), temporary grassland (1.39 million ha) and rough grazing (1.20 million ha) as of 2019, according to Savills.

Livestock production for meat and dairy has always been regarded as the villain of the piece within the emissions arena, so it is reasonable to assume that most of the 720,000 ha of new woodland and energy crops set aside by the CCC will be at the expense of grassland and livestock production. Sheep farming will almost certainly feel the full force of these changes.

Forestry Journal: New reports suggest the Climate Change Committee is recommending two-thirds conifers to one-third broadleaves for the new forest/ woodland plan. (Pictures courtesy of Dr Roderick Robinson.)New reports suggest the Climate Change Committee is recommending two-thirds conifers to one-third broadleaves for the new forest/ woodland plan. (Pictures courtesy of Dr Roderick Robinson.)

It all sounds straightforward and easy enough, with less carbon emissions, more carbon sequestration and the open goal of carbon neutrality. However, this is all contingent on UK food security being maintained by increased home production per unit area and wider access to imported food, although these could be the jokers in the pack – and no less so following recent comments by none other than Lord Deben (chair of the CCC) who appeared to throw a spanner in the works by calling for the government to consider controls on food imports.

His reasoning is that it would be unfair to expect British farmers to help reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions, while the country continues to import food which is produced using environmentally damaging methods (not permitted in the UK). Speaking to Farmers Weekly, Lord Deben said: “Farmers are going to be asked to do a lot of things, and they cannot do that if they are trying to compete with people who don’t do that. The issue of [food] imports becomes very important.”

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He is absolutely right because this is already happening. Oilseed rape production has slumped, in yield and area sown, since 2013 when the EU banned the use of neonicotinoid insecticide seed treatments due to alleged impacts on pollinating insects. The shortfall in canola oil for use in the food industry is made up with imports from countries like the Ukraine, where farmers still use these insecticides.

The CCC’s target in greenhouse gas emissions has a special significance for farmers because it comes within the government’s agricultural transition period, which covers the phasing out of direct payments in England by 2028 and the introduction of a new support system based on environmental considerations and the measures required to achieve them. The devolved governments have their own planned farm support programmes focussed increasingly on environmental goals and the measures required to achieve them.

The 720,000 ha taken out of production for new woodland and energy crops represents 4.17 per cent of productive farmland and 5.84 per cent of agricultural grassland, most of which will be supporting livestock (albeit at different intensities, depending on whether the grassland is pure ryegrass swards and prime pasture for dairy cattle in Cheshire or bracken-plagued, agrostis-fescue rough pasture supporting sheep on Welsh and Cumbrian hillsides).

Forestry Journal: Sheep on rough pasture will almost certainly take the biggest hit from new woodland-creation targets.Sheep on rough pasture will almost certainly take the biggest hit from new woodland-creation targets.

Indications are that future food security may depend heavily on boosting agricultural output from a smaller land area, but some of the current problems faced by farmers indicate how this may prove difficult. Although much maligned, chemical pesticides have played a major part in rolling increases in arable crop yields over the last 75 years at least. However, many have recently been withdrawn from the market and the chickens are now coming home to roost. 

By 2019, the oilseed rape area in the UK was already at a 16-year low because farmers no longer have access to the neonicotinoid insecticide seed treatments that controlled cabbage stem flea beetle. UK potato growers are under siege after losing a long list of agrochemicals, withdrawn from the marketplace by the EU for various reasons. The list comprises long-established, core agrochemicals, including fungicides to control late blight and potato storage disease, sprout suppressants, insecticides, molluscicides for slug control and nematicides for the control of eelworms (nematodes).

The peak period of pesticide withdrawals occurred while the UK was a member of the European Union, but indications are that UK authorities responsible for licensing pesticides in Brexit Britain will not deviate significantly from previous and even future EU positions. Glyphosate for total weed control is still very much in EU legislators’ sights. If this mainstream herbicide was withdrawn from use in UK agriculture it would almost certainly disappear from use in UK forestry on the basis of commercial unviability if nothing else.

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Livestock farming has its own problems. Falls in the UK dairy herd, ongoing for many years, continue unabated with 50,000 cattle or five per cent of the national herd lost during 2019 alone. It’s not difficult to sense that somewhere along the road to 2035 there will be a face-off between food security and forestry and it’s equally easy to imagine which one will prevail.

One mystery in all of this has been the identity of Lord Deben, not a name or face that immediately springs to mind. The gentleman is better known to me as John Selwyn Gummer, former MP for Suffolk Coastal. He joined Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet in 1989 as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food before moving on to become Secretary of State for the Environment under John Major in 1993.

However, to the man on the street he is probably best remembered for a publicity stunt that went badly wrong. As Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food he had responsibility for food safety during the mad cow disease epidemic of 1989–90, which went on to claim 178 British lives. At the height of the crisis he attempted to refute growing evidence for the existence of BSE/Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease by feeding his four-year old daughter a burger in front of press cameras.

But she was having none of it, taking barely a nibble and refusing the rest despite public reassurance by her father who subsequently sank his teeth into the beef himself. According to the BBC, the photo-call became the single thing most remembered about John Gummer’s political career. ‘Doing a Gummer’ accordingly passed into parliamentary slang. If at some point in the future Lord Deben, as chairman of the CCC, has to choose between beef burgers and black poplars, I know which one my money is on.

Meanwhile, any doubts about a future face-off between food security and forestry were buried after reading a recent article in the Sunday Times. Entitled ‘Woodland plan for millions of trees will turn farms into forest’, the piece was written by the science editor (Ben Spencer), who appeared to have been tipped off by the top about a forthcoming announcement on “the biggest tree-planting programme in 50 years”. The facts and figures – expressed in trees and acres, rather than hectares – appear to cover a wide range of previously announced plans, but what caught my eye was the amount of productive land the CCC and Forestry Commission are indicating will have to come out of food production to meet carbon emissions targets.

The Climate Change Committee is now saying 20 per cent of existing agricultural land will need to shift from food production to tree planting, energy crops and peat restoration to meet emissions targets, according to the article. If correct, this represents the combined land area of Northumberland, Cumbria, Lancashire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk; or alternatively, the whole of Wales plus Devon and Cornwall. The CCC now estimates that new forest/woodland planting will be a mix comprising two thirds conifers and one third broadleaves.

Sir William Worsley, chairman of the Forestry Commission, accepts this will be controversial. “In part it’s about persuading sheep farmers to become foresters,” he said. However, even this is not enough for some people. Danny Gross, from Friends of the Earth, is arguing for 26 per cent UK woodland cover, requiring 70,000 ha of trees planted (per annum) by 2050. Heave-ho, only 56.30 thousand more than the 13.70 thousand ha of woodland created in 2019–20.

However, ‘friends for food security’ might reasonably argue that covering a quarter of this small island nation with trees, and reducing the land area utilized for food production by at least 20 per cent to get there, is a step and a risk too far. Especially with a population of 68 million people expected to rise to 73 million by 2035, all still needing to be fed. And the reason? To sequester a mobile atmospheric gas at a time when China is still building coal-fired power stations (38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired power capacity in 2020) and as Brazil continues to destroy its forest (1.7 million ha of primary forest lost in 2020, equivalent to the entire forested area of Scotland and Wales).

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