Farming for change: charting a course

By Sue Pritchard

3rd November 2021

COP26 is underway and negotiations are intensifying on an agreed path to 2030. There’s a new and promising sense of urgency in discussions in Glasgow about what we can all do, right now, to act on the climate and nature crisis.

The commitment to halting deforestation by 2030, for example, is welcome if backed by a serious plan for delivering it. It is a sign that the international community is beginning to get to grips with the question of how to detoxify the Global North’s dependence on fossil fuels and overconsumption, whilst also providing the Global South with the just transition it has been promised to provide for its citizens in clean energy economies. Yet some countries’ net zero plans rely on unproven future technologies to meet their nationally determined contributions, and, without them, the world will fall short of making a serious impact at the pace and the scale needed.

It is in this messy, contested, and complex context that we are publishing the latest technical report from IDDRI, part of our Farming for Change action research programme, and the latest analysis of the potential for a transition to agroecology in the UK by 2050. It addresses multiple challenges simultaneously, with a ‘systems’ view across complex and interconnected issues, backed with practical, ‘no regrets’ measures. It shows a broad and inclusive pathway for action across the four nations, which:

  • Can reduce emissions by upwards of 70%
  • Supports species abundance in and beyond the farmed landscape
  • Keeps food production at the core of land management, growing enough healthy and sustainable food for all
  • Ensures we do not export production (or externalise environmental impacts) overseas
  • Provides a broad pathway for resilient and sustainable farm businesses across the UK, taking responsibility for UK food security. 

The transition to agroecology delivers for the climate and can be the foundation of the UK’s efforts to keep global heating to 1.5C. The conservative estimate of up to a 70% reduction in emissions against the 2010 baseline is in line with the UK government's net zero strategy, and there is plenty of scope for further improvement if reductions in food waste and deforestation are added in.

It delivers for deforestation pledges. According to the World Resources Institute, if tropical deforestation were a country, it would be the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Transitioning to agroecology ends the UK’s contribution to deforestation caused by soya imported to feed pigs and chickens in intensive livestock operations, along with the hidden nitrous oxide emissions from the synthetic nitrogen used to grow it – neither yet accounted for in the 70% net emissions reduction figure (above).

It delivers for nature and biodiversity. To reverse deforestation and secure the emissions reductions that agroecology provides, we must restore biodiversity across agricultural landscapes to grow the ecological richness needed to produce enough food without synthetic inputs. As well as increasing hedgerows, ponds and meadows on farms, an agroecological UK also releases land from core agricultural production, for peatland restoration, afforestation and to re-establish species evolved for non-agricultural habitats. Under this scenario, 10% of current agricultural land, 1.8m hectares, can be dedicated to restoring sensitive and fragile ecosystems for nature and climate recovery.

A radical and practical pathway, it establishes the modern mixed farm at the heart of the UK’s farming future, reducing emissions and managing nutrients by reinstating pasture-fed ruminant livestock. Moreover, in the transition to more diverse farming systems, built around reduced artificial inputs, rotational cropping, a diversity of livestock on the land, efficient nutrient cycling and sustainable horticulture, the UK agricultural sector has the potential to become a net carbon store, as regenerative farming practices develop and knowledge of the sequestration potential of soils, grasslands, hedgerows, agroforestry and silvo-pasture improves.

This is not just a theoretical set of scenarios. Practical change is already underway. In early 2021, following the publication of Farming for Change, an analysis of the initial IDDRI findings, we gathered farmers, growers and other experts together in the Routes to Action workshops, to find out what the IDDRI modelling means in practice for food and farming businesses across the four nations. Their contributions demonstrate that, for many, the transition to agroecology already makes economic and agronomic sense. In the lead up to COP26, during our Land Unlocked Tour, we’ve met yet more individuals and communities taking action across the country. They are moving to regenerative farming practices, re-localising supply chains, and working in and with their communities to respond and adapt to the climate and nature crises – all while creating more space for nature and producing more healthy food sustainably.

We have just eight harvests left until 2030 and there is no time to lose. This latest technical paper, and the rest of FFCC’s Farming for Change research, shows that an agroecological UK is both desirable and entirely achievable, with the right enabling conditions. As world leaders meet at COP26, they face many complex choices, but backing the transition to agroecology is an easy win. Targeting investment, directing research and development funds into agroecology, agreeing shared and transparent metrics, and striking compatible trade deals, provides a broad and inclusive pathway that works for all.