How to reduce emissions in farming

In January 2023, UK retail giant Tesco partnered with five of its largest vegetable suppliers to trial a rollout of low-carbon fertiliser. The initiative will cover 1300 hectares in the 2023 growing season, to scale up to at least 4000 hectares in 2024.

This initiative aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 20% in the first year alone at no extra cost to the farmers. And indeed, by minimising the need to purchase chemical fertilisers, the initiative will save them money.

Moreover, six of the eight low-carbon fertilisers being trialled will be made in the UK from waste materials like chicken litter, fire extinguishers, and food waste. Is that not great?

This trial is a critical step in Tesco’s goal to achieve Net Zero by 2050 and is an encouraging move that other food retailers and producers should take inspiration from.

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions is vital for our planet’s health and ensuring that current and future generations have adequate access to food. In this blog post, we will discuss some positive actions that farmers and food producers in the UK can take:

1. On-site energy production

By switching to renewable energy sources, a farm benefits the environment and is no longer subject to the volatility of energy prices. Wind turbines, photovoltaic solar panels, anaerobic digestion and geothermal energy, are all options to invest in, depending on the available budget. Solar power costs have come down dramatically over the last decade – governments can further encourage its use by reimbursing farmers for setting up solar panels.

2. Livestock and manure management

Livestock and manure contribute significantly to emissions when not managed correctly. Some practices to correct this include:

  • Covering stored manure securely
  • Using feed additives for livestock
  • Increasing rotational grazing to boost carbon sequestration
  • Designing a nutrient management plan to optimise manure usage
  • Using high-quality feed that reduces methane emissions from enteric fermentation
  • Investing in manure management technology, especially in “wet” systems where emissions are up to 20 times higher per ton of manure than in “dry” systems

3. Nitrogen use efficiency improvement

Crops worldwide use less than half of the nitrogen applied through fertilisers, causing the rest to run off into water bodies or groundwater or be emitted as nitrous gases.

Addressing this calls for farmers to study nitrogen needs, scientifically match crop needs for the growing season with nutrient application and limit the use of urea fertilisers, which can achieve a use efficiency of up to 80%.

However, investing in this kind of efficiency can be expensive, so government-backed research into sustainable fertiliser options and subsidies for nitrogen use efficiency is so important.

In this context, mention can be made of nitrification inhibitors, which are nascent technologies that inhibit the ability of microorganisms to convert nitrogen into nitrate (which, when broken down, emits nitrous oxide).

Both chemical and biological inhibitors have been tested. The results indicate that the technologies can be applied economically toward wetter and more intensely grazed fields, where emission rates are much higher.

4. Overall farm efficiency enhancement

Farmers everywhere need to make a concerted effort towards technical efficiency on their farmland. This means reducing their emissions per unit of crops cultivated and meat/dairy produced and using their land more efficiently in favour of carbon sequestration. Some doable activities they can invest in include:

  • Assessing older buildings and properties for energy-saving possibilities
  • Investing in regenerative agriculture to replenish reduced soil nutrients long-term
  • Cultivating pigs and poultry, which have lower carbon footprints than sheep or cattle
  • Investing in newer buildings with more efficient insulation and lighting capabilities
  • Improving forage quality by planting appropriate grass varieties and minimising feeds with high carbon footprints like soya
  • Rearing animals based on fertility and genes so that high-quality meat and dairy can be obtained within shorter periods, thereby reducing the amount of methane any individual animal emits
  • Setting up slurry and muck storage systems that reduce ammonia emissions into the atmosphere

5. Soil conservation and carbon sequestration

Carbon sequestration involves capturing and storing carbon dioxide from the environment, and the soil in healthy agricultural ecosystems holds high potential in this context. Ways to promote soil health and accelerate sequestration include:

  • Reducing tillage
  • Invest in agroforestry
  • Increasing rotational grazing
  • Returning crop residue to the soil
  • Increasing cover crops and reducing bare fallow periods
  • Invest in nitrogen enhancement through soil nutrition management
  • Introducing more diverse crops to boost soil health and organic matter content

6. Energy conservation and efficiency optimisation

Much of the time, energy expenditures go up because of avoidable inefficiencies. Farms can combat those by:

  • Replacing pumps and motors that run on fossil fuels with electrically powered models
  • Regularly maintaining heating and cooling systems so that they are in optimal working order
  • Using sensors and/or timers on HVAC systems so that they are used only as much as necessary
  • Conducting studies of machinery and equipment across the farm to identify areas where energy can be saved

Over to you

In conclusion, while mitigating the environmental impact of the food supply chain is a long-term challenge, much can be done at the individual level to reduce carbon footprints.

Governments can play a big role here by offering grants for investing in carbon-efficient technology, incentivising startups and think tanks to develop more cost-effective solutions and deploying phased regulations to help countries worldwide meet efficiency targets while ensuring accountability.

The path to sustainability is a long and hard one, but very doable with the right strategies – and by investing in strategies like the ones we have shared above, farmers can do their part for the planet and enjoy more profitable cultivation seasons.

Before you bounce off, check out how Waste2ES aims to help farmers and food producers achieve higher yields and improve environmental sustainability.

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