UK: The Greenhouse Gas Action Plan and the NFU

At the beginning of May I set off for Stoneleigh for my first proper Nuffield interview, to talk to Dr Ceris Jones, the climate change advisor for the National Farmers Union, about what the NFU were up to around climate change mitigation and their farmers as well as the work of the Greenhouse Gas Action Plan.  Ceris has kindly spoken at some of my FCCT events before as well as providing a well-informed opinion on some of FCCT’s more wild and wacky project ideas, so she was a fab first interviewee for me to practice my questions on!

The Greenhouse Gas Action Plan (GHGAP) is the principle mechanism for delivering agriculture’s commitment to a reduction in its annual emissions of 3 million tonnes (of CO2e) by the third carbon budget (which is 2018 -22).  It is an industry wide initiative, whose steering group includes the great and the good and who all work together to help farmers and growers mitigate and adapt to climate change, without compromising domestic production.

The GHGAP explains quite nicely in its latest report which has just been published some of the issues:

Over the next 35 years, the global food system will have to feed more people will have to feed more people with less environmental impact. Our British farmers and growers will need to adapt to the changing conditions at the same time as reducing greenhouse gas (and ammonia) emissions. Agriculture has a unique emissions profile and there is a limit beyond which it will not be biologically possible to make further emissions reductions.  Therefore the challenge of reducing them whilst increasing food, feed, fuel and fibre production is huge.” (GHGAP, 2016, Progress report and Phase III strategy).

The action plan has a list of 15 key on-farm actions that the steering group and research has agreed will encourage the continued reduction of GHGs from agriculture and at the same time increase production efficiency.  These actions are:

Key on-farm actions for all farm types

arable actins

Key on-farm actions for livestock farms


The key points that came out of this interview were:

A resounding need to link science to practice, but to include farmers at the practice stage – measures that are recommended have to be rooted in core science but actionable at the farm level.

The importance of local trusted dissemination networks – we cannot overlook the relationship that is there between farmers and their current advice provider – advisors are a crucial part of enabling behavioural change (more work needed on this).

Farming will always be a leaky system – it’s based on biology.  So although there is loads that we can do, we can’t plug all the leaks.

Coming up with a list of mitigation measures is the easy part – the tricky bit is deciding where to focus your effort and what fits in with your business priorities – this is where the local advisor may help to focus and provide site specificity – tailor the measure to the individual farm business.

We need consistent messaging – we all need to be communicating clearly and simply what we want farmers to do.

Legislation and quality assurance – just because farmers have to fill in a form or tick a box, is it the best way to achieve long term behavioural change?

There is a need to “sell the positives” and provide clear messages to the public of the good things that farmers are doing around environmental management and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Ultimately we need to embed the actions in day to day business management and make it easy – to allow for the development of resilient businesses.

We cannot plan for the weather.

The use of case studies is an effective way to help communicate messages, however the choice of case study farmer is important, we need a role model that is on a journey.

Questions that still need answering

The GHGAP has provided 15 key actions that everyone agrees will help.  What is the most effective way of getting these recommendations into on the ground action? Do we need to fund / legislate / encourage?  Is it enough? What about those people who are already doing these things?  Are they there?

Should the GHGAP be a separate entity that is funded so that more resources can be given to it, or by separating it out, does it lose its core strength of being delivered by the industry even with its stretched resources?

It’s going to be an interesting few months!

So what’s the next 12 months all about?

The Nuffield idea has all come about through a niggling feeling that has developed over the last year or so, that I could be doing better and that I was missing something.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, and my life, but it was time for a change.  It was time for a new adventure, but an adventure that had a proper purpose and reason (which meant I could justify it to the long suffering husband).

The day job, if you have read the introductory blog post, you will remember, is all to do with providing advice and knowledge for farmers on resource management, climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  It includes putting on events, writing blogs, talking to people and designing tools that will help translate science into practice and provide information and tools that will help farmers grow efficient businesses that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy resilience.

I’ve been running events and projects on resource management for the last six years.  My office, in the beautiful Cornish countryside, has also housed projects that have dealt with improving livestock health and welfare, grassland management and other rural skills.  We have run a lot of courses, on a huge range of subjects. The statistics are pretty impressive, over the last two years, the Rural Business School has run 1445 events, and trained over 13,000 people across the south west most of which were farmers and growers.

DSC_0191  DSC_0195

The events that I run (on resource management) are always notoriously hard to get farmers to attend.  They are (nearly always) free, and we provide lunch.  There are quite often a high proportion of advisers there, rather than farmers. This differs from other events that we run that focus on livestock health, which are always well attended.

When discussing this with colleagues, the same sort of comments were always voiced, along the lines of, “that’s always the way with those types of events,” and “they will never do as well as the production focussed ones”. Which always confused me, as what we were talking about what all to do with production, managing resources surely has a place with production efficiency?  Especially in times of financial hardship where costs of production are so crucially important? It made me thing that potentially it was a communication issue, and how we were talking about these types of events.

There’s no escape

As well as running farmer events, I also have the pleasure of teaching the ‘next generation’ of farmers and growers at Duchy College and guest lecture on a couple of industry based qualifications that we run.  These students have no choice.  If they want to pass their course they have to attend my lectures (insert evil laugh).

The format of the classes that I run for our students that are based out on-farm is 4 days of teaching.  These students are all involved in managing livestock units but want to return to college to gain a qualification.  The module that I teach them is entitled Farm Environment Planning.  We have one day of introduction to the subject of environmental planning, resource management and sustainability, then do a couple of visits and then they have to focus on an area of their home business that they need to improve in terms of its sustainability credentials.  We carbon footprint their businesses, look at the pros and cons of the software, and the amount of data you need to complete the calculation.  We debate the issues and come up with solutions.

These students arrive on day 1 looking fairly mutinous about having to take four days out of farm work to listen to me waffle on about environmental stuff. However, over those four days, something amazing happens and they start to understand the link between how they manage the resources on-farm and the bottom-line.  We go and dig holes on the college farm and see what’s happening underground and compare it with what the crop looks like.  They go home and do the same.  They spend four days standing back from their own business, looking at other farms, hearing about each other’s experiences and talking about the issues. It inspires them to go home and question what (and more importantly why) they do what they do.

I ask all these students, now brimming with enthusiasm whether they would have done this module, if it hadn’t been part of their course – would they have taken the time to come along to an event on this topic? 98% of them said no, but having done the course they could see the benefit and would come on subsequent courses. The main reasons that this (albeit small) sample size gave me included:

  • Already doing environmental stuff (I’m in stewardship etc)
  • Can’t take time away from the business
  • Not interested in the subject

The same positive feedback is had at the end of our farmer events, those that attend, for the most part, have a great time and go home with some new information that they may inspire them to do something different at home.  So how do we get more farmers to attend these sort of events? How do we make them interesting for farmers to attend? How do we link these subjects more closely with what they are doing day to day on-farm? More widely, how do we develop effective methods of communication for farmers when we are talking about resource management, climate change and greenhouse gas emissions that will inspire them to engage with the subject?

This is the subject that I am going to look at over the next twelve months.  Through travelling and talking to people not just in the UK but further afield, I am aiming to look at how we effectively communicate the benefits to the farm business of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and get them interested and engaged in emissions reductions.  I am going to visit projects across the world that are trying to engage farmers in developing and showcasing low carbon farming systems, see what works, and try to understand a bit more what helps to drive behavioural change.

What am I hoping to achieve?

The ultimate aim of this, as well as being an amazing opportunity to discover more about myself, is to make sure that we are communicating the key messages about agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions, and resource use efficiency in the best way possible.  If we can do this we can inspire farmers to engage with the issues and be part of creating a resilient farming industry that will be profitable and sustainable for future generations.

A bit about me

My name is Becky Willson.  I’m 34 years old and live on the western edge of Dartmoor in Devon with my husband Tom and two daughters Emma and Chloe, a greedy black Labrador and an ageing cat.

The Willson gang

For work, I split my time between working for Duchy College Rural Business School as a technical specialist in resource management, and a project officer for the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit, which is a farmer led organisation that deals with helping farmers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  Both of these jobs allow me the great privilege of talking to farmers and growers about managing resources and carbon on-farm.

I have been working in resource management for the last few years, previously helping to develop the SWARM Hub project which was a European funded project that aimed to help translate science into practical knowledge for farmers around managing their resources including soils, manures, nutrients, water, energy and carbon.

Helping farmers with nutrient management planning and valuing the nutrients that are found in manures and slurries has been a core part of my role over the last year or so with the development of the Farm Crap App.

Although I’m not from a farming background, I’ve always wanted to be involved in the industry and have never wanted to do anything else.  My early career was mainly spent happily milking cows around the UK, before I defected to the dark side of knowledge transfer.

Away from work, I help to look after our community farm, which involves 50 families from the local area working together growing their own food and rearing their own livestock.

nuffield logo       Thank you

I am only able to take part in this life changing experience thanks to the kind sponsorship of my Nuffield Scholarship by AHDB Beef and Lamb.  I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity, so thank you.