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Regenerative agriculture is the future of farming

Image by: Steve Taylor ARPS / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

Supporting a kinder, more nature-friendly approach to livestock farming, coupled with new technology, is what will actually deliver for our environment

Despite debate about the precise route to net-zero, there has been a steady convergence of opinion around the impact of greenhouse gases on climate change, the need for the world to act in a co-ordinated way, and the importance of the United Kingdom leading in developing the technologies that will help us meet the challenge.

One area that remains highly contested is the issue of the UK’s livestock industry and methane emissions. While it is an accepted scientific fact that methane is a very potent greenhouse gas (GHG), that’s about as far as the consensus goes. For farming there has been a raging battle over the past five years over the most environmentally friendly approach to livestock production. 

Those who focus purely on head count argue that we should reduce meat consumption and raise livestock in intensive, housed systems with a concentrated diet so that cattle reach maturity faster and can be killed sooner. It’s not a very endearing vision for the future.

There is now a whole new generation of farmers, ecologists and scientists who are practising what is loosely termed regenerative agriculture. They argue that more extensive, pasture-based livestock systems improve soil health, promote biodiversity and that grassland managed for livestock can be a significant carbon sink which creates the space for nature to recover.  Regenerative agriculture has certainly gained the upper hand in recent years as our understanding of the evidence has developed.

While potent, methane is a short-lived gas in the atmosphere, lasting for about 10 to 12 years compared to more than 200 years for carbon dioxide, so the current methodology of measuring the global warming potential of a gas over a 100-year timeframe (GWP100) significantly exaggerates the long-term impact of methane, even though action to bear down on it could make an important short-term contribution.

The claim that reducing our national consumption of meat would reduce methane emissions is flawed

It is increasingly clear that national GHG inventories around the world are significantly understating methane emissions from manure and especially from slurry stores. Current assumptions are based on outdated research from the 1970s but new data from research done in both Canada and the UK shows those current assumptions to be flawed. The bad news is that emissions are probably much higher from intensive dairy and livestock units than previously thought, but the good news is that methane from such stores can now be captured and used as a fuel, which both removes GHG emissions and displaces fossil fuels. It’s a great example of new technology offering the solution.

The claim that reducing our national consumption of meat would reduce methane emissions is also flawed. We do not measure greenhouse gases at the point of consumption but by national industry emissions. Because our livestock industry is globally competitive, even if meat consumption in the UK fell, the balance would simply be exported to a growing world market and our emissions would remain unchanged. If we took steps to undermine livestock production in the UK but imported our meat instead, we would not have done a clever day’s work for the planet because the carbon footprint of imported meat is roughly double that of home-produced meat.

Every field of environmental policy is complex because the environment is complex.  When crafting future agriculture policy, I was very keen to ensure that we struck the right balance between measures that would reduce GHG emissions and measures that would support the recovery of nature and deliver our ambitious targets on species abundance. Sometimes there is a tension between those objectives.  

The reason so much of the policy programme now being pursued by Defra relates to regenerative agriculture is that it reflects a recognition that supporting a kinder, more nature-friendly approach to livestock farming, coupled with new technology, is what will actually deliver for our environment, not forcing everything to new levels of intensive production nor lecturing people about eating meat.

George Eustice is Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth and former environment secretary

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