Inspiring steps to reach net zero

The CLA’s Rural Business Conference showcased how members are committed to fighting climate change. Mike Sims reports
Mark Tufnell, George Eustice and Lord Deben

Inspiring case studies of climate-friendly farming and practical advice on how to head towards net zero showcased how members are making a difference at the Rural Business Conference 2021, the CLA’s biggest event in two years.

Environment Secretary George Eustice used the platform of the conference to share more detail about Defra’s Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI). The SFI – the first of the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes – will be rolled out this year, with farmers receiving payment for taking actions that generate benefits such as improving soil health.

Mr Eustice told more than 500 delegates at the QEII Centre in London: “We will pay a more generous payment rate than previous EU schemes. There will be fewer rules and more trust.

We will never address the complex environmental challenges we have unless we incentivise changes across most of the farmed landscape, and that is what we aim to do

George Eustice

He also encouraged members to look again at Countryside Stewardship, because it “offers a great stepping stone to the new schemes” such as Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery, details of which are due to be announced soon.

CLA President Mark Tufnell described the SFI announcement as a “major milestone” in the development of England’s new agriculture policy. Mark says: “The detail fires the starting gun on our transition towards a more sustainable and resilient farming sector, that will feed the nation as well as deliver further environmental benefit.

“While many farmers are very supportive of the direction of travel, they are deeply concerned about the transition from the old regime to the new, particularly regarding imminent cuts to the Basic Payment Scheme. It is incumbent on government to ensure every farmer is supported.

“As farmers and landowners, we take seriously our responsibilities to the natural world. Through the use of regenerative farming techniques, peatland restoration, tree planting and hedgerow management, we are working hard to mitigate climate change and reverse biodiversity decline.”

In his opening speech, Mark also reminded members that the organisation is here to help them via the advice teams and lobbying, and policy work: “Wherever you are in your journey to net zero we, at the CLA, are on your side.” The CLA used the conference to launch a new document filled with case studies designed to inspire members to undertake further climate change mitigation measures, while also highlighting to decision makers in Whitehall, Cardiff and beyond how members are helping make a difference.

The first session at the sold-out net zero-themed conference also heard from Lord Deben, the independent Chairman of the Climate Change Committee. He told the audience that COP26 had been “remarkably successful” and said optimism is crucial, though also warned of an apocalypse because “if we don’t get it right we will destroy the world”

Lord Deben said people will need to eat less meat, but better quality, and the public needed proper information and education on why; and warned the government it should not be striking trade agreements with those who do not meet our standards – a point echoed by Mark.

Climate-friendly farming

Jake Freestone and Rebecca Mayhew

The conference, which was chaired by BBC broadcaster Victoria Derbyshire and backed by headline partner Knight Frank, plus supporting partners Barclays and Saffery Champness, featured several inspiring case studies of CLA members big and small from across the country on their journeys towards net zero. The climate-friendly farming segment heard positive stories from those pioneering different systems.

Among those to share their experiences was Sophie Alexander, an arable and dairy farmer at Hemsworth Farm in Dorset, whose mantra is “diversity in everything”. She said organic farming had a low impact on the natural world, produced nutrient-rich food and was in demand, with sales especially rising among young customers of the future.

Jake Freestone, of Overbury Farms in the Cotswolds, told attendees about its regenerative agriculture approach, covering areas such as no-till, cover cropping and rotation. He says: “We need to put soil at the heart of what we do.” Rebecca Mayhew, a livestock farmer from Old Hall Farm in Norfolk, reminded the conference that nature works and we have to harmonise with it. The agricultural industry has the power to bring great change, she said.

Carbon markets, and a sustainable rural economy

Tom Curtis, Alice Huxley, Tom Heathcote, Alex Robinson and Victoria Derbyshire

The potential of carbon markets was explored by speakers including Tom Heathcote and Alice Huxley from Knight Frank. Tom said that while COP26 did not create a single global market, nature-based solutions were emerging and carbon offset opportunities were of real interest to members, while Alice urged caution when selling or leasing carbon, as it meant a loss of control.

Alex Robinson, the co-founder of Nature Capital, said British farmers lead the way with high-quality produce, so we should do the same with carbon markets, and outlined the importance of technology. The session was rounded off by Tom Curtis, founding partner of 3Keel, who wants to see rural economies capture the benefits of carbon and said all markets are about multi-functionality, including food production and forestry.

Looking at how to make the rural economy more sustainable, Alice Favre, of the Chettle Estate in Dorset, spoke about putting nature and the community first. Alice said achieving net zero requires a “radical and rapid” response, with the reinstatement of “culture” into “agriculture”. She was joined by community member Becky Burchell, who revealed how a food hub was being developed comprising of a café, shop and farm to shorten the supply chain and offer locals seasonal, nutritious and affordable food.

Housing, heating and energy were covered by John Rous, of the Clovelly Estate in Devon, who explained the challenges it faces in improving the EPC ratings of its buildings. Housing was also the focus for Dr Jeremy Harrall, who spoke on behalf of Eakring Farming Ltd about decarbonising at settlement level via a development of nine fossil fuel-free homes for the post-hydrogen era in a village famous for oil production.

See official videos and photographs