Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit


15.04.16 Final report released on methods of assessing sustainability

The final report of the Ekhaga Sustainability Assessment project has been published.

The project which was run by the Organic Research Centre aimed to provide practical recommendations on the suitability of the available sustainability assessment frameworks, themes, tools and indicators for the organic sector and to help consider and further develop sustainability assessment approaches. 

This was a much needed project.  Sustainability and the need for sustainable production systems is ever more important in a world of global challenges (and that is however you define sustainability).  However the big issue has always been, although its a great and noble ambition, how do you actually measure its happening on the ground? And what can we use as suitable indicators that we are making progress?

The old adage of you can't manage what you don't measure is important as well.  Does it mean that we will all be managers of sustainable farming systems and how will we know if we get there.  Although we may be making progress in modelling and defining indicators that cover the economic and environmental pillars of sustainability where do we stand on the social indicators? And who is setting the targets about where we should be, and whether its achievable to get there?

This report, goes some way into trying to answer some of the questions around methodologies that are specifically applicable to organic and ecological systems and tried to answer some of the questions around any existing trade-offs and relationships between the themes of sustainability.

The report, which can be read in full here, provided some key points.

  • There is need for more work on assessing the synergies and trade offs within sustainable farm practices and whether these are adequately represented by the tools available
  • There is also need for farmers to accept some of the trade offs between economics and the environmental and social factors. This may need to be pushed by policy.
  • The encouraging aspect of this report was the recommendation (and realisation) that priorities need to be set depending on the specific context of the farm (not one size fits all blunt policy).

What did the report see as the strengths of the organic sector in sustainable farm management?

These included:

  • biodiversity
  • ecosystem diversity
  • soil quality
  • greenhouse gas emissions

The final recommendation explained that further development of the evidence base to these factors would help publicise the results further.

07.04.16 Best GHG mitigation opportunities from livestock sector

The global livestock sector supports about 1.3 billion producers and retailers around the world, and is a significant global economic contributor.

New analysis estimates that livestock could account for up to half of the mitigation potential of the global agricultural, forestry and land-use sectors, which are the second largest source of emissions globally, after the energy sector.

The lead author of this study, CSIRO’s Dr Mario Herrero, said this new account of the mitigation potential for the global livestock sector is the most comprehensive analysis to date as it considers both the supply and demand sides of the industry.

A key finding is that we can get the best mitigation potential from the livestock sector if we take an integrated view of land use and practice change that considers the whole of agriculture and forestry as well as looking at dietary patterns and how we address the needs of global nutrition.

“Livestock has a role in a healthy and sustainable diet, and the sector has an important economic and social role, particularly in developing countries,” Dr Herrero said. “We need to balance these health outcomes and the economic and social benefits, while also capturing the mitigation potential the livestock sector can offer.”

Dr Herrero said sustainably intensifying livestock production is one way this can be done. “We’ve found that there are a number of ways that the livestock sector can contribute to global greenhouse gas mitigation,” he said. “New management practices such as rotational grazing and dietary supplements can increase livestock production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We need to increase the adoption of these different strategies by making sure that we have the right incentives. If appropriately managed with the right regulatory framework, these practices can also achieve improved environmental health over and above the greenhouse gas benefits delivered, for example through improved ground cover and soil carbon.”

Journal Reference: Mario Herrero, Benjamin Henderson, Petr Havlík, Philip K. Thornton, Richard T. Conant, Pete Smith, Stefan Wirsenius, Alexander N. Hristov, Pierre Gerber, Margaret Gill, Klaus Butterbach-Bahl, Hugo Valin, Tara Garnett, Elke Stehfest. Greenhouse gas mitigation potentials in the livestock sector. Nature Climate Change, 2016; DOI:10.1038/nclimate2925

06.04016 New IBERS research to boost grassland efficiency and improve prospects for livestock farmers

New IBERS research will give livestock farmers the opportunity to produce quality forage with lower nitrogen and phosphate fertiliser inputs, thereby saving costs whilst reducing any negative environmental impact caused by nutrient leaching, run–off and potential greenhouse gas emissions.

“IBERS has led the way in developing and applying innovative plant breeding techniques over the last three decades, producing many of the leading forage grasses and clovers now on the official Recommended Lists,” says Paul Billings, managing director of Germinal GB.

“This latest project will build on that heritage, drawing on this established genetic material as well as new germplasm, to create new varieties with the added advantage of nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) and phosphorus use efficiency (PUE).

“This is an example of vital near–market research that will deliver tangible benefits, not only for livestock farmers but also for the environment. Both aspects are important in the context of long term sustainable livestock farming.”

IBERS plant breeders will use a combination of conventional and innovative marker–assisted (MAS) approaches to improve the speed and precision of selecting varieties for NUE and PUE. The work will apply to both perennial ryegrass and white clover, where the potential for greater NUE and PUE has already been identified.

Source: Germinal Seeds

25.03.16 Good agricultural practices reduce soil erosion in Italy

Soil erosion in Italy could be reduced by 43% if Good Agriclutural and Environmental Conditions (GAEC) were fully adopted, a recent study has found. Reducing soil erosion would also increase soil organic carbon stocks, particularly on cultivated sloping land.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy, March 2016

Protecting European soils from erosion is therefore a priority under the European Commission’s soil protection thematic strategy 1 . To encourage environmentally sound agriculture, actions to protect soil are included in the cross compliance mechanism attached to pillar 1 farm subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Under the CAP Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) requirements, Member States are obliged to prevent soil erosion and maintain soil organic matter through national or regional standards, such as minimal soil cover maintenance (GAEC 4); minimum land management reflecting site specific conditions to soil loss (GAEC 5); and maintenance of soil organic matter level (GAEC 6). Should farmers not comply with these requirements, they are liable to a small penalty (approx. 5%) on their subsidy.

The concept of GAEC includes protecting soils against erosion and maintaining soil organic matter and soil structure (other GAECs are aimed at protecting water, biodiversity and animal health). It is up to Member States to establish standards which are appropriate to their conditions. Example actions include minimising the area of bare soil (e.g. by leaving  vegetable matter on soil surfaces); limiting soil loss through methods such as growing crops across or perpendicular to a slope; and maintaining soil organic carbon stocks (e.g. by residues management including restrictions on burning crop residues).

Although Member States must notify the commission on how they implement the GAECs, little is known about the effect GAEC standards have had on reducing soil erosion and increasing soil carbon stocks in Europe. In the first study of its kind, researchers, including from the European Commission’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability, have assessed the impact of the GAECs at the national level. They chose Italy as a case study because arable land there often has steep slopes with soil that is particularly susceptible to being eroded by heavy rainstorms.

The researchers linked an erosion model with an agro-ecosystem model to calculate the impact of GAEC practices on soil losses and soil organic carbon stocks. Average annual soil erosion losses due to changes in climate, land cover, soil properties, landscape features and agricultural practices were assessed using data from climate, land cover and agricultural databases, as well as satellite images.

The researchers looked at three scenarios. The first, ‘baseline’, represented the absence of any specific national policy on erosion prevention and carbon conservation and was based on conditions prior to the GAECs on soil being included in the cross compliance mechanism. The ‘current’ scenario is based on the implementation of compulsory GAEC standards, beginning in 2005. As a result of changes to practice, this scenario had different soil erosion rates to the baseline. Finally, the ‘technical potential’ scenario reflects the avoided erosion and the amount of soil organic carbon that could be stored by 2050, if GAEC standards were to be implemented across all arable land.

In short, the three scenarios represent: no GAECs; current GAEC implementation; and application of GAECs to the entire surface of arable land in Italy.

For the baseline, the researchers estimated that soil is being lost at 8.33 tonnes per hectare per year (t/ha/yr) across all arable land in Italy. Around 29% of the arable land had losses

greater than 10 t/ha/yr, which is the water erosion threshold indicator for tolerable soil losses in Mediterranean environments, at which point the rate of soil erosion becomes unsustainable.

 The researchers estimate that approximately 73% of soil erosion is occurring in 25% of the Italian cropland. Farms located on slopes (greater than 10%) experience around 64% of the total annual soil loss, as they are the most exposed to soil erosion.

For the current scenario, soil loss was estimated to be 7.43 t/ha/yr.  Approximately 25% of the arable land has losses greater than 10 t/ha/yr, which is around an 11% decrease compared with the baseline scenario. The ‘technical potential’ scenario could significantly reduce soil losses to 4.1 t/ha/yr, a 51% reduction compared with the baseline scenario and approximately 43% compared with the current scenario.

Top-soil organic carbon stock varied in the three scenarios depending on the location of arable land and land management practices. The study suggests that current GAEC practices have led to an overall 17% carbon accumulation through avoided soil erosion, compared with the baseline scenario. If these standards were fully implemented on all arable land, the soil organic carbon stock in Italy may increase by up to 11% in the long-term.

As monitoring soil erosion and carbon levels across all farms is not viable, the researchers suggest their modelling approach could help policymakers to assess the effectiveness of soil conservation measures at national, regional and even global levels. Research is also being conducted to assess sediment and carbon budgets, including transport and depositional processes.

16.03.16 Reducing the emissions intensity of livestock production: case studies of success

The information below was produced by the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, and more information on the alliance can be found by clicking here.

This case study looks at the French dairy industry and its efforts to reduce the environmental impact of milk production, with ambitious targets to reduce the carbon footprint of milk by 20% over 10 years.

The French Dairy sector

France is Europe’s second largest milk producer after Germany and contributes 3.5% of the global milk production, and generates 28 billion Euros in revenues and 123,000 jobs. There are a variety of production systems and the average herd size is 70 cows. Looking at the distribution of GHGs across France as a whole, the dairy sector represents 7% of emissions (including the national herd, and land associated with milk production).

What’s been happening?

Between 1990 and 2010 there have been improvements within the French dairy sector around milk yield per cow, as a result of genetic gains and improvement in farm management practices, including feed efficiency and herd management through an advisory programme. There has also been a reduction in fertiliser use through improved practices surrounding management of manures.

Effect of actions on emissions intensity of livestock production

During the last 20 years, the GHG emissions associated with dairy production in France has fallen from 1.4kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per litre of milk to 1.1kg. This has been due to reduced numbers of dairy cows as well as improved productivity and fertiliser use.

The LIFE Carbon Dairy action plan

This plan has been introduced that aims to reduce the carbon footprint of milk production by 20% over 10 years, avoiding emitting 140,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. It is being rolled out across 6 pilot areas which represent 65% of national production of milk.

The plan includes a tool for French dairy farmers to use which helps them to quantify their carbon footprint and environmental impact. As well as a national foot printing exercise the programme will set up 60 innovation farms to test new approaches to reducing emissions at a farm level.

Why bother?

By reducing GHG emissions on-farm, the plan will also help farm efficiency and sustainability. A lot of mitigation practices induce savings and less working time for farmers, for example by reducing energy consumption and the use of inputs.

There are some opportunities where additional investment may be needed in terms of purchase of new equipment. These are always difficult decisions to make especially when previously there has been little concrete evidence of the quantifiable benefits that these practices have. The advisors tools being provided in France allow farmers to link the economic benefits or costs to the environmental ones and determine the cost benefit in £/kg Carbon dioxide equivalent avoided (which may be linked to a carbon credit mechanism in the future).

Implementing the plan

The challenge in order to achieve the plan’s ambitious goals is to train farm advisors in providing appropriate advice and in promoting innovative techniques adapted to different operating environments.

Farms will be monitored throughout the programme and regular analysis and discussion with the farmer will allow alterations to be made (because of weather!) and check that everything is ok. The plan also aims to create farmer networks that will help producers understand the constraints and advantages of the implementation of innovative practices in different production contexts including the part of grass and silage in the system and agronomic and climatic conditions in regions.

For more information on the project please click here

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