Farming for Net Zero – a hot topic at Arable Scotland
Scotland’s premier Arable event, Arable Scotland, has been hailed a huge success after making a glorious return for its second year following cancellations throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
Held at Balruddery Farm near Dundee on Tuesday, the event is organized and hosted by the James Hutton Institute in partnership with Scotland’s Rural College and the AHDB, and has featured leading arable crop exhibitors including Syngenta UK, Bayer CropScience , LG Seeds and RSABI.
With demonstration plots present to showcase the latest research and technological advances in arable crops – including new crops, varieties and integrated pest management – visitors were also able to participate in plot tours during the day. and speak to representatives of companies and research organizations present at the event.
Alongside the tours, the event hosted a selection of “Arab Conversations,” hosting interactive discussions between a panel of experts and the public to share views and explore solutions to environmental and financial sustainability issues facing the industry faces – with the drive to net-zero being one of the key topics discussed that day.
So how can land managers improve biodiversity while reducing carbon, and are there solutions that can deliver both?
“We need to look at how we can move our policy forward and how we integrate the measurement of greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity gain into agricultural businesses in a way that farmers can understand and with which they can relate. One of the main ways we try to target this is through our national testing program, however, we are also working with NatureScot with some of the other pilot approaches on how we measure biodiversity gain at the farm across the different farming sectors, including arable, dairy and upland systems to name a few,” commented the Scottish Government’s agricultural policy chief, John Kerr.
In response to John Kerr, director of the James Hutton Institute, George Lawrie added: “We can do a range of things to improve biodiversity, but make sure food production is the cornerstone of that policy. The government needs to make sure the policy is right because farmers want to keep farming and we want to keep improving biodiversity.
“There are agricultural areas that we can look at that can provide biodiversity on a larger scale and will still allow us to move forward and undertake traditional agriculture. One aspect that farmers need to focus on is wastelands and headlands, but the policy has to be there to deliver those kinds of benefits,” he continued.
With the policy in place, is it too much to ask if farmers can have their cake and eat it? With the introduction of regenerative approaches in arable farming and the reduction in costs promised to be a benefit if the change is made, is productivity suffering? That was the question posed to David Aglen of Balbirnie Farms, Fife, who tries to follow the principles of regenerative agriculture.
“I think at worst we have maintained production for the long term, but if we are smart enough we can improve it. the use of fungicides and relying on biology to maintain good soil health to achieve similar yields,” said David Aglen, adding that he started using urea as a source of pulverized nitrogen on plants, which he claims improves nitrogen efficiency.
“As we moved to direct drilling our crops went down in yield during the transition but now we are coming out the other side I can’t give you a reason why we can’t operate at the same level , if not better, than we were before Farmers will have no choice – we are losing the battle against disease and weeds, and the fight against resistance and pests, so farmers will having to think differently in order to survive.”
“The game has changed from the 1990s to the current year and the whole context of agriculture has taken a different approach. I think we need a different mindset for how we breed varieties in the future because of disease and resistance issues, and because we need to think about diversity in the system – which can be achieved through intercropping which improves biodiversity in the field while reducing inputs at the same time,” added Dr. Ali Karley of the James Hutton Institute.
One of the concerns expressed by farmers interested in participating in a regenerative approach was the issue of direct seeding. With a policy rewarding those who implement a no-till method, is the age-old approach to tillage really something farmers can say goodbye to and is it something that can be implemented in all arable systems across the country. Doug Christie of Leven-based regenerative crops farmer Durie Farm responded:
“I used the no-till approach as a way to cut costs. Before giving up tillage, I found that my soil was getting heavier and harder to break up – there was no structure in I am not averse to plowing in the spring when the soil is not saturated and leaving the soil as a stubble or cover crop all winter This is not the total answer but I think that this can help structure the soil.However, you cannot switch to a no-till system without altering your rotation, whether that means introducing a cover crop or re-entering livestock into the system – it won’t work in isolation.”