Agri co-ops respond to the eco challenges of the 21st century

'There are several initiatives being developed and scoped that can play a significant role in helping agriculture mitigate these challenges'

Headlines over carbon emissions, biodiversity and soil depletion have put pressure on the farming industry around the world. Here, Tim Bailey, chief executive of the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society, and Justin Darisse, vice president, communications at the US National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, look at initiatives to curb the environmental footprint of the industry – and argue that solutions will come from the industry itself.

Reducing impact – Tim Bailey, SAOS

The apparent impact of farming upon the environment is now an ever-present challenge to the UK agriculture industry. Barely does a day go by without a headline in the news highlighting latest concerns and issues that potentially further undermine the ongoing economic viability of a vital foundation of our rural fabric.

Tim Bailey, CEO of SAOS (Photo: Malcolm Cochrane)

Whether fads or well-founded, these allegations create image problems and longer-term sustainability challenges for our farming sector. As we all know, mud sticks, and even more so when on-farm!

SAOS works closely with partners across the Scottish farm and food supply chain and we appreciate that all is not lost. There are several initiatives being developed and scoped that can play a significant role in helping agriculture mitigate these challenges.

Two key challenges are how to manage greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and how to control soil degradation and soil carbon.

Greenhouse gas emissions from ruminant livestock (‘windy’ cows and sheep) are a real threat to the ongoing sustainability of livestock farming in this country. It is true that, in much of the UK, cattle and sheep protein is produced from land that cannot be cropped for cereals or fruit and vegetables. In that case it is surely better producing animal protein from grass ‘at home’ compared to importing protein derived from plant production, such as soya beans, produced on previously forested land. However, there is still work to do to demonstrate farming’s proactive contribution to meeting carbon net zero targets.

There are several ongoing innovation projects addressing this, including development of more feed-efficient grass species and less methane-emitting animal feed among others. However, one of the most appealing measures that SAOS is closely supporting involves increasing the production efficiency of livestock farming.

In a beef herd context, the one constant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) will be the cows producing the beef calves themselves. In an ideal world, every farm would have each of their cows producing one calf of the same size, at the same time every year, with each calf then growing at the same, optimal rate. That way there is an optimal production of beef protein within a set period from each cow that is emitting GGEs.

However, the reality is different. Not every cow calves at the same age. Not every cow gets pregnant. Not every cow rears its calf for the same length of time. Not every calf grows at the same rate. The greater the inefficiency, the higher the carbon footprint per kg of beef produced and less income generated for the farm business. Climate efficiency and business profit go hand in hand. It’s been estimated an average 600kg cow produces approximately 2.8 tonnes of CO2e per annum. If an average 100 cow herd increased the number of calves per cow by approximately 6%, they would achieve 14t CO2e savings efficiency for the same equivalent beef production.

That’s a real, achievable solution but how we do get there? First, we need the agriculture industry to get access to its own data. The first priority is for the industry to own its data on a ‘co-operative basis’ – data gathered on farm, by farmers for other farmers. Then, once data ownership and access is resolved, farms need to be benchmarked against each other, good practice showcased, and efficiency improvements embedded. These are climate change savings that can be made here and now.

Secondly, the maintenance and stewardship of the soils, and the organic matter within them, is increasingly being recognised as a critical success factor to limit additional greenhouse gas emissions. The more soil is degraded and disturbed, the more carbon can be released. Furthermore, good soil stewardship can build soil carbon stocks and play an important role in ‘locking carbon’ from the atmosphere.

To maximise farmer buy-in, it is important that there is a rebalancing of the carbon impact of farming. Currently, the official greenhouse gas inventory doesn’t recognise this and agriculture’s impact on climate seems to have the cards stacked one way.  The positive impacts of farming on the environment must be acknowledged too.

This includes soil carbon management, renewable energy production and care and maintenance of forestry. If farmers can see the positive side of the balance sheet, then this will help reward positive behavior to build on this and act upon the emissions side too. SAOS is working closely with industry stakeholders and the Scottish government through the Carbon Positive initiative to build wider engagement on both the positive impacts that need nurtured, as well as the negative impacts that need mitigated. Once again though, to enable this progress it is crucially important to allow farmers to own and aggregate their own data, meaning they are truly accountable for what can and must be achieved to avert, not only an emergency for the climate, but also potentially long-lasting reputational damage to their industry.

Co-operative action can be a powerful tool to tackle one of farming’s greatest challenges, but we’ll only achieve this if the key enabling tools, including data ownership and use, can be in the hands of those who need it.

Building resilience – Justin Darisse, NCFC

Farmer co-ops have long helped their farmer-owners deal with the effects of severe weather; as those events seemingly become more frequent we see co-ops continuing to play that role. For example, some co-ops have developed specialised risk management products for their members, allowing even small farmers access to hedging tools that they would not be able to access on their own.

Even more important, though, is the fact that co-ops provide their members with the know-how and technology to successfully farm despite adverse weather. One only has to look at past growing seasons where, despite bad conditions, farmers were able to produce strong, and in some cases record, yields.

Justin Darisse (Photo: ncfc.org)

 It is technology– and the agronomic advice that helps to implement it – that will be important to co-ops helping their members cope with a changing climate. For instance, continued adoption of conservation tillage – now used on the vast majority of corn and soybean acreage – and cover cropping have been and will continue to be key practices in preserving soil health. But these practices are dependent on continued advancement in seed technology and weed control products.

 NCFC and our co-ops have been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that regulation of new technology is based on facts, not fearmongering or the opinion of internet “influencers.”

 As governments at the state and federal level in the U.S. and our supply chain partners look at reducing carbon emissions, co-ops will continue to provide a direct connection between these entities and individual farmers.

The bottom line is that co-ops remain the best place to ensure that these efforts are effective and based on the best interests of farmers, consumers and the environment. Too many times in the past, we have seen goals or recommendations from both governments and supply chain partners that were untethered from the reality of farming and thus useless.

Farmer co-ops are problem-solvers, and those that are the best at problem-solving tend to be the most successful and sustainable in the traditional sense of that word.  NCFC’s job, while our community discusses and debates climate change and what our society will do, is to help our co-operative members be as successful as they can in solving these problems.

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