Support our Nation today - please donate here
News

Major challenges for Welsh agriculture as report says it must cut back on livestock farming to achieve net zero carbon emissions

25 Jul 2023 7 minute read
A sheep farm in Denbighshire

Martin Shipton

Welsh agriculture needs to move away from livestock farming and people need to eat less meat and more plant-based food to help the nation achieve net zero, according to a major new report from Cardiff University.

The Wales Centre for Public Policy (WCPP), based at the university’s Social Science Research Park, has published its response to the Wales Net Zero 2035 Challenge Group’s first question: “How could Wales feed itself by 2035?”

The report examines the evidence and explores challenges facing the agricultural sector, which is set to be Wales’ largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in 2035, as other sectors decarbonise more quickly.

By making significant adjustments to farming and land use, the paper argues that Wales could make up for lost time in the race to achieve net zero.

According to the evidence, some agricultural land will need to be used in ways that add to our carbon sinks, such as increasing our woodland, forestry and peat bogs. Reducing agricultural emissions will also require a reduction in livestock numbers.

Agricultural emissions

The report says: “Despite falling by 11% since 1990, agricultural emissions in Wales have increased since 2016 and are dominated by livestock farming, with direct methane emissions from livestock alone making up 61% of agricultural emissions in Wales. Emissions from the management and use of manure contribute an additional 14% of Welsh agricultural emissions; further livestock-related emissions sources include the release of carbon from peatland, land conversion, and the existing land footprint of livestock agriculture, with its associated carbon opportunity cost.

“Agriculture is also a significant source of air, soil and water pollution, with a range of consequences for biodiversity and human health. Agriculture is the second biggest contributor of reported river pollution incidents in Wales, after the water industry); of these, around half come from dairy farming.

“Agriculture is also responsible for 81% of ammonia pollution, which has been rising in the UK since the early 2000s, due to a reversal in the trend of reductions in fertiliser use, increased slurry spreading and an increase in emissions from cattle. Ammonia pollution contributes around half of some kinds of fine particulate matter air pollution, which has particularly serious impacts on respiratory and cardiovascular health, contributing to various chronic conditions such as heart attacks, cerebrovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and lung cancer.

“Ammonia pollution also impacts on biodiversity, both via a direct toxic effect on vegetation and through changes in species composition due to nitrogen deposition, which can result in the loss of sensitive and rare species and habitats. Indeed, agriculture as a whole has been the main driver of biodiversity loss in Wales in recent decades, with biodiversity trends in farmland birds declining by 54% since 1970.

“While these trends are concerning, they also point to the potential for identifying measures to tackle agricultural emissions and agricultural pollution in tandem, leading to improvements in biodiversity and human health.

“Reducing agricultural emissions will require a reduction in livestock farming as well as changes in farming practices to mitigate livestock emissions Demand-side approaches emphasising a global shift towards healthier, more sustainable diets and reductions in meat and dairy consumption have major implications for Welsh farming, given that livestock and livestock products currently account for 86% of Wales’ agricultural output, and 76% of Wales’ utilised agricultural area is grassland for livestock grazing (which also represents the most common type of farm holding in Wales after undifferentiated small farms)

“For this reason, sector representatives tend to advocate for a greater focus on supply-side measures to mitigate livestock emissions without the need to scale back on livestock production.

“However, existing assessments of supply-side mitigation options, which include changes to animal feed and interventions to increase livestock and pasture productivity, indicate that these alone will not be sufficient to achieve significant cuts to agricultural emissions); overall it is what we farm more than how we farm that drives the climate consequences of Welsh agriculture.

“Moreover, while options to increase production efficiency can lead to reduced emissions per unit of product (such as meat or milk), the production of inputs to facilitate this can indirectly drive further absolute emissions along the feed supply chain; productivity improvements can also create economic incentives for livestock farmers to simply increase production and/or expand into marginal land.

“To be effective in driving absolute reductions in emissions, any reductions in the emissions intensity of livestock production must therefore be combined with measures to limit overall demand and/or land use. Reductions in livestock farming are beneficial not only for driving down absolute agricultural emissions – they are also essential to relinquish land required for carbon sequestration. Some 85% of the land used by UK agriculture is taken up by livestock systems, either directly for grazing or indirectly for the production of animal feed. For Wales this figure is likely to be significantly higher given that 86% of our agricultural land is used directly for grazing; the global land footprint of Welsh livestock farming will be higher still when imported feed is taken into account.

“Releasing some of this land for other, more carbon efficient uses, such as afforestation or agroforestry, could enable significant additional mitigation from agricultural landscapes. Thus, reducing demand for livestock not only combines with supply-side options to reduce absolute agricultural emissions, but also creates new opportunities for the use of finite land resources in the context of net zero.

“Every credible model for achieving emissions neutrality requires agricultural land to be relinquished, so that it can be used in ways that enhance our natural carbon sinks – largely woodlands and peat bogs – and compensate for residual emissions elsewhere in the economy

“Freeing up the additional land that will be required – without compromising food security – will only be possible through shifts in demand towards not only less emissions-intensive but also less land-intensive food production systems.”

Diet

In terms of changing diet, the report says: “The evidence clearly shows that for the sake of planetary and human health, global diets must converge towards much higher proportions of plant-based foods, such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds, with significant reductions in consumption of meat (especially red meat) and little to no consumption of ultra-processed foods.

“Food systems interventions that address diet change and seek to expand access to sustainable, healthy foods therefore have significant potential to combine climate mitigation with a range of broader benefits for nature, human health and societal inequality.”

Dr Helen Tilley, WCPP Senior Research Fellow, said: “It is clear from our work on this topic that there are multiple, deeply entrenched and interconnected obstacles to the sustainability of Wales’ land use, farming and food systems; but the evidence also helps us identify some important opportunities for change.

“We must grasp these opportunities if we are to tackle what could be our greatest challenge yet for the sake of future generations. Achieving this will require policy makers, agriculture and other sectors to work together to find workable solutions, recognising the need to support Welsh farmers and communities.”

Challenge

Former Environment Minister Jane Davidson, who chairs the Wales Net Zero 2035 Challenge Group, said: “We welcome this report from the Wales Centre for Public Policy to help us develop our work.

“Our challenge as a group, which has the wellbeing of future generations at its heart, is to identify pathways to accelerate progress to net zero while ensuring a nature-positive and just transition that safeguards communities.

“This report reveals some concerning trends around Wales’ food system and encouragingly, also identifies measures to help tackle emissions and pollution leading to improved biodiversity and human health.

“While interventions can be explored around peatland, forestry and our coast, we must not shy away from the question of Welsh farming.

“Like many sectors, Welsh farmers are in a tough economic situation following Brexit and the conflict in Ukraine. We must work together to address the even greater challenge of climate change.”


Support our Nation today

For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
21 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Cathy Jones
Cathy Jones
7 months ago

Wrexham (spelt wwrong) County Bourough Council tackles the porblem of reducing livestock farming by building houses for Chester drones to live in over agricultural lands… because WCBC is corrupt, full of lazy liars and does not care about anything than the comfort of the councellors that are so easily paid off.

Last edited 7 months ago by Cathy Jones
Richard Jenkins
Richard Jenkins
7 months ago
Reply to  Cathy Jones

Not only Wrexham. As Labour Welsh Gov abdicate responsibility for housing to the carpetbagging Volume Housebuilders who build mini mansions for well to do incomers looking for a bargain. Not for local need. When will we realise we need to assist our local builders to compete with the massive wealth of Global builders who buy nothing locally, don’t train, bring in workers or employ on exploitative terms.

Ap Kenneth
7 months ago
Reply to  Cathy Jones

The full council eventually woke up to the problem and voted down the LDP. Surprised that they cannot challenge the population basis of the LDP which is obviously wrong (last census showed no change, while LDP is based on growth) using the future generations Act.

Gareth Westacott
7 months ago

The war against Welsh farmers continues.

hdavies15
hdavies15
7 months ago

…led by odd balls who think nothing of consuming faddish foods shipped in from locations thousands of miles from here. “Food miles” is often used in rhetoric but seldom factored into real world considerations.

Charles Coombes
Charles Coombes
7 months ago
Reply to  hdavies15

Runner Beans from Kenya or Morocco

Another Richard
Another Richard
7 months ago

The excessive verbiage tends to conceal what will be needed to bring about and maintain net-zero, which is an entirely valid goal. Basically people are going to have to change they way they live. But they are unlikely to give up both meat and highly processed food without draconian measures, any more than they’re going to give up driving short distances or paving over their gardens, without restrictions and controls that will be hard to impose in a democratic society. Clearly a great deal of education will be needed, but it will need to be done honestly rather evangelically. Will… Read more »

Another Richard
Another Richard
7 months ago

I see I’ve been voted down. It would be interesting to know which of my assertions people disagree with, and what arguments they have against them.

Ap Kenneth
7 months ago

We all tend to grow up thinking what things are like now, eg farming, is normal and how it has always been. Obviously it is not but it is a neat mental trick we play on ourselves. This article reminded me of the childhood shock of seeing hillside fields suddenly one year being a bright green after the applcation of fertiliser, the shock of seeing bright yellow fields when oilseed rape became a popular farming choice. It has been a pleasure to see the hay meadows that the National Trust at many properties has allowed to regrow as a reminder… Read more »

Dave
7 months ago
Reply to  Ap Kenneth

What data do you have proving the younger generation is more likely to be Vegan?
Forced Vegetarianism/Vegan is a construct from over pricing meat through lack of supply and greater demand.
This is the draconian way the goverment will decimate the farmers,who wont get any more for the more expecive meat,and will fit into the bug eating future utopia of the ruling globalist elites who run all governments.

Ap Kenneth
7 months ago
Reply to  Dave

This is from Google so not gospel “The Food and You 2 survey uses a larger number of survey participants and at present is the most accurate estimate. The number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2019. In 2019 there were 600,000 vegans (1.21% of the population); 276,000 (0.46%) in 2016; and 150,000 (0.25%) in 2014.” and “Vegan takeaway orders quadrupled between 2016 and 2018, becoming the fastest growing takeaway choice. In 2021, Deliveroo said that orders of vegan dishes were up 163 per cent on the previous year. ” and seems to agree with what I… Read more »

Gareth
Gareth
7 months ago

I would have thought the UK Gov trade deals would help reduce livestock farming in the Britain, along o f course with the Brexit deals farmers were eager to get.

David Parry
David Parry
7 months ago

Control,control,control. Go Google Dutch farmers to see where this will go(you won’t see it on our national news!) So the backstory of this is tree huggers don’t want us eating meat. Chicken will be like caviar at this rate. Meat prices Will rocket to unnafordable prices. It’s all a pile of crap. But hey,so long as my mobile phone has a signal…

Peter Cuthbert
Peter Cuthbert
7 months ago
Reply to  David Parry

I am sorry to see that some colleagues appear to be getting hysterical about this issue. Please could we stop and throw some facts into the discussion? The London Tory Government has shafted hill farming by allowing ‘lower quality’ New Zealand sheep meat to enter without any limits. The same Government has just signed up to the Trans Pacific Trade Pact which includes Canada. Canada is currently making a fuss that the UK must reduce its controls on beef meat by reducing its quality standards. They will, of course, win that fight as the threat of the Canadian beef industry… Read more »

hdavies15
hdavies15
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter Cuthbert

Why rely on governments ( with dubious motives) to stop/inhibit imports of vegetables ? We can choose to buy local produce, especially when in season, we can even choose to grow our own. The food miles problem should be a valid target for sharp reductions. Same goes for meat. If Canadian beef proves to be of inferior quality ( clue there in reduced quality standards) then buy the better Welsh stuff but eat less of it. I’m a meat eater but spread it thinly across fish, poultry, beef, lamb, pork etc. The trick is to have less on your plate… Read more »

CapM
CapM
7 months ago
Reply to  David Parry

“Chicken will be like caviar at this rate.”
In the 1950s and earlier, although not caviar, chicken was a luxury food.

We need to get over the mentality that what we have experienced over a relatively short period of time whether it be food, transport or other is not some constant that we have a right to in perpetuity.

Dr John Ball
Dr John Ball
7 months ago

I am so utterly fed up with this nonsense.
It may well be that far farming – and zillions of other activities – is affecting the climate.
What drives me to utter distraction is while WG and others pick a fight with the farmers they are totally oblivious the most polluting activity – our famous car and lorry park, the M4.

George Thomas
George Thomas
7 months ago

I back the need for all of us to do our own small bit. I applaud those farmers who want to get involved and champion a government looking at doing what they can to make a difference.

Frankly, if weather becomes worse then farmers won’t be able to survive due to more regular heat waves and floods.

However, this doesn’t make sense unless multi-national companies are also being asked to do their bit and do much more and it doesn’t make sense if Welsh livestock farming is simply replaced by flying Australian livestock product over.

Gareth Parry
Gareth Parry
7 months ago

Sorry but given the high level of imports of both meat and plant product into Wales to supplement what Welsh farmers are able to produce for the Welsh domestic market, thisreport should be disregarded, it’s terms of reference are flawed and that it is the other end of the food supply chain which is flawed- the dominance of the supermarkets in failing to offer real ‘local’ produce which have the most effect on moving to net zero. “Local” produce within supermarket chains is at best tokenistic ie Milk from dairy farms from North Wales is taken to cheshire to be… Read more »

Jack
Jack
7 months ago

After banning oil and sheep, will Britons wear clothes made from seaweed or leaves I wonder, or just import everything from countries where there aren’t any environmental laws?

Charles Coombes
Charles Coombes
7 months ago

Would be a better idea to suggest alternatives and thus positive about the future of farming in Wales. Grow hemp,
Vegetables under glass, vegetables outdoors runner beans etc. Would need investment but equally increase food security in Wales.
Shame we are not in the EU!

Our Supporters

All information provided to Nation.Cymru will be handled sensitively and within the boundaries of the Data Protection Act 2018.