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12.09.14 Theme of the month – attitudes to climate change

12th Sep 2014

In the general stresses that surround farming including making business decisions, not annoying the RPA, looking after stock and crops and coping with the weather, worrying about what is the carbon foot print of your business and how it will affect the climate in fifty years’ time for most farmers and growers doesn’t seem immediately relevant.

Indeed one of the challenges for anyone concerned about the impact of climate change is not only that it seems a long way off from whatever it is that we’re doing at the moment and but also that there’s no tangible reward for possibly changing what we’re doing and making our lives any more complicated or hard work than they are currently.

The statistical report compiled by Defra recently (that we have done a few blogs on last month) that looks at issues surrounding climate change has asked some questions regarding attitudes to climate change and to start the month, I thought it would be a good starter for 10.

Research outcomes

The report highlights some of the problems with adaptation and
attitudes. Indeed it reports that “many farmers, but not the majority, recognise the importance of GHG emissions, but most remain unconvinced about the business benefits of reducing emissions. Ensuring a greater understanding of GHG emissions, whilst not a pre-requisite for changing practices and reduced emissions, is likely to be an important driver for change for some
farmers. A greater understanding may also lead to the adoption of more measures and cost effective solutions for reducing agricultural GHGs that fit with the farm business.”

There are numerous research projects that suggest practices that will reduce GHG emissions and provide a business benefit (win win situations). There is even now the terminology of “win win win” situations where not only are you reducing GHG emissions, and saving money, you are also sequestering carbon (who knows how many wins we could end up with?!). Practices advocated include better use of organic manures (and integrating their use with fertiliser applications to avoid over application), ensuring efficient livestock production, managing soil structure, tillage management and energy usage.

The problems with GHG emissions

The issue comes that all these practices that are advocated are long
term solutions and results are  not visible immediately. If you have a cow that goes down with
mastitis, you can treat her, and she will recover over a short time period, she returns to being productive with saleable milk and you can immediately see the business benefit. With management practices concerning GHG reduction, there is less immediate effect and sometimes the benefits are not so clear cut. If we return to our cow example, if cow A has mastitis (providing you
know what strain it is and what antibiotic to treat it with), the cow will respond to treatment and return to production. It doesn't make much of a difference as to whether the cow is in Scotland or Cornwall, whether she is being fed a TMR or forage based diet or whether she is a high or low yielder the results will be the same. If we compare this to soil management, the scale of benefits you will see will depend on your soil type, its current state in terms of compaction and what you are growing (along with a whole other host of factors). Its much less clear cut.

Most farmers are likely to be influenced to change behaviour and practice because it makes business sense; and so it is important when we are communicating research outputs that we highlight the practical and financial considerations.

The other barriers

Even considering all this, there are several key barriers to uptake which are non-financial, or not directly financial. Some of these aspects include a lack of willingness to undertake practices advocated, which could be due to limited trust in what is being asked and the outcomes that result, or a lack of ability to undertake (through a lack of understanding, skills, time or capital).

The latter part (a lack of ability to undertake), can be addressed by making sure that we have effective dissemination of options available, and, if necessary, funding options available to farmers to implement them. Making sure that the information that goes out to farmers on how to reduce emissions is clear and considers all the impacts that the change will have on-farm (for example the effect on existing management, financial implications, suppliers and end market) is imperative. It does rely in part on two way communication, and farmers asking questions and challenging the researchers to get more information.

The first part which involves a deeper level of trust from farmers and growers and a willingness to engage with the climate change agenda and reducing GHG emissions, is trickier, and will be one of the things that we will be considering this month.

A call to arms

Moving forward however, the very real risk is that because of the confusion over potential benefits or drawbacks of implementing one form of management or another, and the range of possible actions available, we are impassive to the whole thing and do nothing. And because we do nothing, and don’t pose the questions that we need answering and switch off from the whole thing, the mistrust and apathy continues.

Doing nothing is not an option anymore.

So the challenge this month is to do something. And even if that something is just to tell me that I’m talking a load of codswallop, that’s great too. Communication is the key, to enable us all to ask the questions to the right people and start to normalise discussions about emissions,
to highlight practical implementation problems with research, to demand answers
and get excited about it. Join in now.