The Welsh farming industry is ready to help tackle the climate crisis but a level playing field is needed in order to do so, delegates heard at a recent webinar.
That was the key message from Farmers' Union of Wales (FUW) Deputy President Ian Rickman, as he addressed COP Cymru 21 on Thursday 25 November.
Titled ‘Fields of ambition - farming at the centre of sustainable land use for the future’, the event also heard from Hybu Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales), NFU Cymru and the National Sheep Association.
The panellists discussed integrating trees into farming systems and farmers' work in moving towards net zero by improving productive efficiency.
They also talked about the role and use of carbon calculators, grazing for biodiversity, sustainable food security and the opportunities and risks of the carbon market.
Speaking at the event, Mr Rickman told the audience: “Our ambition at the FUW for genuinely sustainable land use to tackle the climate and nature crises is twofold.
"Firstly we need a just and fair transition for all farms and farm types. Everyone needs to play their part, and should be given the opportunity to do so.
"And secondly - we need to focus on land sharing as opposed to land sparing, using land for a multitude of benefits instead of ‘releasing’ it from agriculture.”
Mr Rickman added that every farm have the ability to provide benefits to biodiversity, whether that’s through increasing their hedgerow network, as many farmers have done, managing on-farm woodlands or adapting livestock grazing for the benefit of ground nesting birds.
“However, environmental schemes in the past have not been easily accessible to all farms or farming types, and instead have focused on creating ‘biodiversity pockets’, with smaller numbers of farms receiving most of those payments.
“Therefore we are lobbying for a payment cap on the proposed public goods scheme to prevent large landowners and charities from being the main recipients," he said.
The FUW therefore argued that the Welsh government should implement a payment cap, introduce redistributive payments for smaller holdings and include a strengthened active farmer rule.
This, Mr Rickman told the audience, will ensure the benefits of these payments stay within rural communities and farming families in Wales, helping create a fairer transition from one scheme to the next.
He said: “Enhancing biodiversity on all farms as opposed to pockets also enables habitats to be linked up and connected together, which, as the Nature Recovery Action Plan for Wales states, 'provides maximum benefit for biodiversity across the wider landscape’."
The union highlighted that while offsetting emissions is an important tool in tackling climate change, it should not divert attention away from the core efforts of companies and industries to reduce emissions.
“We do not have land to spare to simply use it to offset current emissions, or for planting trees for carbon trading to provide companies with a ‘licence to pollute’. That would be the opposite of sustainable land management.
"For example, to offset the UK’s manufacturing sector's annual carbon footprint of approximately 80m tons of CO2, approximately 6.6m hectares of agricultural land would need to be planted with trees, an area over 3 times larger than Wales and 36% of the total UK agricultural area.
“That land needs to provide food, timber, a livelihood, biodiversity and store carbon, which is why we see a land sharing approach as so important, as opposed to a blanket afforestation approach.
“We want to see Wales’ family farms as part of the solution, not a casualty of carbon offsetting by powerful players - that would not be a just and fair transition to Net Zero,” said Mr Rickman.
The Voluntary Carbon Market, he added, needs better regulation and governance to ensure a level playing field and protect farmers and landowners within contracts.
“We believe planting trees is only part of the solution for increasing carbon sequestration and improving biodiversity," he explained.
"Protecting, valuing and enhancing existing on-farm carbon stores such as hedgerows, heathlands, woodland, wetlands, peatlands and soil organic carbon in grasslands is just as important, particularly for biodiversity.
“Most of Wales’ farming is based on permanent pasture, my farm included, which tends to have a high soil organic matter content. A third of the Earth’s carbon is stored in grassland soils; they store carbon as soil organic matter at about 3.5 times greater than plants.
“This provides management opportunities for all farmers to increase soil organic carbon in their soils - including tenants and commoners who may struggle to access grants for other incentives.
“We would like to see a singular and UK Governed Soil Carbon Code, in order to better value our existing store and it’s contribution to biodiversity, and to provide a level playing field for farmers trading carbon,” he told the audience.
Directly addressing the industry's greenhouse gas emissions, Mr Rickman noted that Welsh agriculture accounted for 14% of Welsh emissions in 2019, and farmers are seeking to reduce that figure.
"However, it’s worth remembering this doesn’t include the carbon our soils, hedgerows, farm woodland or heathlands sequester, and nor does it include renewable energy produced on farms. In fact, our Carbon Dioxide emissions represent only 1.7% of Welsh GHG emissions.
“Carbon footprint tools are helping us analyse our feed, fuel and fertiliser inputs, and become more carbon efficient producers by using that data. We need to focus on our net production, and make more from our inputs.”
Concluding his presentation, Mr Rickman was clear that farmers like to focus on what they can do practically on their own holdings, such as increasing species diversity, implementing low-input grass based systems and participating in peatland restoration projects.
“Farmers want to be involved. Indeed, farmers, rural communities and land managers have the best understanding, generational knowledge and practical experience of land management.
"This practical experience and knowledge is absolutely vital for tackling the climate and nature crisis. Wales’ family farms must be on the frontline, and not in the firing line,” he said.