To introduce our Agri-food transitions to net zero module, Neil Ward from the University of East Anglia, who is a co-lead of UK Research and Innovation’s AgriFood4NetZero and author of Net Zero, Food and Farming: Climate Change and the UK Agri-Food System, explains the background to the net zero challenge for the UK agri-food system.


In 2019, the UK became the first major economy to enshrine in law a commitment to reach net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. The commitment accelerated the need for transformation in energy and transport systems, and triggered a wave of analyses of what may need to be done in the agri-food system, a source of almost a quarter of UK emissions. The Climate Change Committee was busy preparing its Sixth Carbon Budget, setting out the UK’s path to net zero and focusing, in particular, on the period 2033 to 2037. Agri-food and land use are acknowledged as more difficult to transition than other sectors. They are less amenable to system-wide technological solutions and are also intricately bound up with other environmental issues such as biodiversity and water management as well as deeply held social values around food and the countryside.

The transition is challenging because not only will farming practices have to change to reduce emissions from livestock, fertiliser use and agricultural fuels, but also large tracts of land will be required for tree-planting and other measures to sequester carbon. We will have to produce at least the same amount of food but from a reduced agricultural land area. A shift on the scale required seems highly unlikely without a significant change in dietary patterns and a reduction in consumption of ruminant meat and dairy products. In the absence of a clear national plan, a plethora of initiatives across the UK and across the sector are unleashing innovation, examples of which are explored in NICRE’s innovation portal module.

Current picture

Ruminant livestock accounts for about two-thirds of the UK’s agricultural emissions problem. Of that, enteric fermentation – emissions directly from the animals themselves – are estimated to account for 85 per cent of methane emissions with manure management (slurry lagoons and so on) making up the rest. However, there are question marks around these estimates, and it is possible that manure management emissions could be greater than currently estimated. Despite considerable debate about what net zero might mean for the UK livestock sector, the current pathway set out to 2050 by the Climate Change Committee implies less land for livestock, and so fewer livestock numbers. Reducing livestock numbers is very sensitive among those groups which earn their living that way (livestock farmers and ancillary industries). Breeding and feeding might help bring emissions down per animal, and some of the emissions reduction here could potentially be quite significant, but they don’t necessarily deliver the land saving. There will still be a role for livestock in grazing for land management and biodiversity purposes. Net zero need not mean no livestock but is likely to mean less.

Innovation in practice

Innovation is progressing on a range of fronts. In animal breeding, there are efforts to breed animals that are healthier, faster growing and lower emitting. Similarly, with animal feeds, innovation is developing new feedstuffs and grazing regimes, which reduce the production of methane per animal. And in farmyards, Increasingly farmers are turning to decision-support tools to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve carbon stores and the opportunities for real-time carbon monitoring in agricultural fields continue to develop. In agroforestry, farmers are experimenting with combining trees with grazing animals or growing arable crops. More and more farmers are joining networks to pick up knowledge and experience. Attendance at the annual Groundswell Festival, which focuses on conservation agriculture and regenerative systems, is growing radically year by year. 

Need for more knowledge

A key issue with net zero projects is being able to gauge the materiality of likely change. How significant a contribution to reduced net emissions do they generate? There are a whole host of net zero initiatives which are not likely to impact the big drivers of emissions, but only tinker round the edges. It is difficult for people to focus on what are the main sources and how emissions can be really, materially reduced. For the transition to be successful, people are likely to need to become far more knowledgeable about the emissions surrounding the production, processing, distribution and provision of their food. Let’s hope that NICRE’s module and our work at AFN Network+ to shape the next decade of research to support and drive the agri-food system’s progress towards net zero will help in this journey.