Source: Getty Images

AHDB and Quality Meat Scotland have launched an “industry-first” on-farm environmental baselining scheme designed to offer “a more accurate reflection” of the food sector’s position and progress towards net zero.

Under the near £3m pilot scheme, the two levy boards will individually baseline emissions on up to 170 farms in the beef and lamb, cereals and oilseeds, dairy and pork sectors across Great Britain.

AHDB and QMS are currently recruiting farms to join the project, which will focus on collecting accurate measurements to reveal the true net carbon position (the balance of emissions and carbon removals/stocks) of UK farm businesses, including carbon sequestration potential, AHDB said.

The data collected would show the “range and variety of results from individual farms, which will allow the industry to move away from relying on national and international averages”, it added, pointing to how UK emissions were often conflated with global emission statistics.

“By measuring greenhouse gas emissions, landscape and soil carbon stocks, water run-off, as well as using soil analysis of individual farms, the data collected will help to demonstrate the real environmental benefits of British agricultural products, both domestically and overseas, helping to bring “integrity” to carbon data measurements” AHDB said.

Public goods

The pilot would also allow the industry to demonstrate how it delivers a collection of public goods, benefitting all of society, such as improving water quality, reducing greenhouse gases, building carbon stocks, enhancing soil health and supporting biodiversity both above and below ground, it claimed.

“Agriculture faces the biggest challenge of a generation in demonstrating the positive impact that farming systems can have on the environment,” said AHDB CEO Graham Wilkinson.

“This is amplified by a lack of accurate, on-farm-level data. Our industry-first pilot will help change the story of British agriculture, which has been dominated by gross greenhouse gas emissions.”

Read more: Farm to Fork - was Sunak’s summit enough to inspire supply chain confidence?

Farming had a critical role to play in achieving government targets, he added. However, the picture was often more complex “because of our role in not only producing greenhouse gasses but our ability to store and sequester carbon across the whole farming system”, Wilkinson said.

“This project is not just about measuring carbon or soils, it is a transition to informed action. AHDB is bringing the industry together on this mission and has committed to investing significant levy funds to lead this baselining pilot.”

The ultimate ambition of the project was for baselining to be rolled out to every farm across the country. “We will be working with stakeholders and government to discuss how this could be supported by the industry in the long term,” Wilkinson added.

The project follows the announcement of a common carbon footprinting model by the BRC and its retailer members last December in collaboration with AI data company Mondra. 

“Through our discussions with stakeholders, we know we have a great deal of support for this project, but it also raises questions on environmental data, and who is best placed to act as a data custodian for agriculture,” Wilkinson said.

“We are in early discussions with the industry to develop proposals to protect farmers’ interests and provide solutions for how environmental data might be provided to those that want it where farmers agree to supply it.”

The project had a “unique opportunity to showcase tangible evidence of what we already know: that Scotch Beef, Scotch Lamb and Specially Selected Pork actively contribute to landscape preservation and carbon sequestration as well as food production”, QMS CEO Sarah Miller said.

The pilot would provide “a huge dataset from which we will be able to draw some early observations”, said AHDB livestock science and environment director Chris Gooderham. “For example, the relevance of carbon stocks, the potential for increasing soil carbon storage, and what impacts it.”

Gear change

It comes as ex-Arla exec Wilkinson promised a “gear change” in how AHDB operated, some three months after he started in his role as the levy board’s new CEO.

“Now more than ever, our levy payers need a strong AHDB,” he said, while spelling out his key objectives.

 These included being “levy payer obsessed”, he added. AHDB needed to “demonstrate value in what we are doing on farms and across the supply chain and in export markets. A strong voice is really important”, he claimed.

“The benefit we have is our independence, plus robust data and insights – it means we can talk with authority.”

The body would also “maximise the fantastic pool of talent that work for AHDB and to attract the very best for the future”, Wilkinson said, while also pledging to “use my experience of bringing our industry together, working with farmers and for farmers to ensure British agriculture continues to be a global leader in producing excellent, delicious food for shoppers here and abroad”.