Environment FAQs for farming, growing and the industry

From climate change to biodiversity, our list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) cover a wide range of topics on the environment.

Do you have a question about the environment?

Select a category from the index list above. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, please email Jon Foot, Head of Environment.

General questions

Jon Foot

Head of Environment & Resource Management

There are many types of biostimulants on the market for a range of crops and production systems. AHDB provides information on the types of biostimulants but not individual products. See: ahdb.org.uk/biostimulants.

Further independent information on efficacy of some horticultural products can be found at bio4safe.

A large proportion of the UK's 500,000 km of hedgerows are now protected. Since 1990 10,000 km of new hedgerows have been planted with a further 20,000 km being restored. However, more can be done.

The Countryside Stewardship grant supports the planting of new hedgerows. See the gov.uk website for more information.

Chemical use on farms varies greatly by land or soil type, and by crop. Farmers most commonly use chemicals to nourish soils, combat diseases, supress weeds and minimise pest damage. However, farmers are increasingly using alternative methods to combat these problems.

 

Red meat plays an important role in a healthy balanced diet, providing us with multiple key vitamins and minerals including vitamin B12, iron, potassium and zinc. Plus, all nine essential amino acids, perfectly packaged for our body to absorb and make use of this nutrient dense food.

Despite the constant links between red meat and cancer, there is no consistent evidence linking any one food to cancer but instead a range of lifestyle factors. Average consumption is currently around 70 g per day as recommended by the NHS. 

Increased woodland and certain bioenergy crops can provide carbon storage, wildlife habitats and flood mitigation benefits, as well as alternative income. More intensive forestry could be considered, other types of renewable energy production (e.g. solar panels) or tourism.

There is a meticulous legal process to follow to develop farmland to sell. There is growing emphasis on providing public goods, such as provisioning (food and fibre), regulating (carbon storage, flood protection) and cultural (education, recreation, rural livelihoods and aesthetic value) services. Where land can deliver multiple benefits, this will likely be encouraged and rewarded over the coming years.

Alternatives to peat

Climate change

Increasing the efficiency of your business will reduce your carbon footprint. For example, finishing animals in specification earlier, or improving your nitrogen use efficiency will have a positive effect on your carbon footprint.

Efficiencies include slurry cooling; slurry acidification; anaerobic digesters; optimal nutrient use of manures and slurries; optimal use of manufactured fertilisers and reducing cultivations.

In 2019 ClimateXChange, Scotland’s Centre of Expertise on Climate Change, published an independent review of current available tools: climatexchange.org.uk/media/3584/farm-based-carbon-audits-final.pdf

Pasture only sequesters carbon as it grows when first sown. Once it is fully established, the process of growth and decay makes it carbon neutral. Trees on the other hand sequester carbon for their entire lifespan. Ploughing permanent pasture releases significant amounts of carbon.

Agriculture as a whole is the fourth smallest emitter of the UK’s greenhouse gases (10%), with livestock responsible for just over half of that. Transport (28%), energy production (23%), business (18%), and residential (15%) sectors dominate, however all have significantly reduced their emissions since 1990.

The UK imports less than 1% of the world’s soya, and is consumed by both animals and humans. A moratorium initiated by Greenpeace has been agreed, so that no further deforestation will take place in the Amazon for soya production. 

Use one of the available carbon tools; some more infomation on carbon auditing is available on the CFE website.

As brands begin to carbon footprint their products (Oatly and Quorn), the environmental 'scoring' or labelling of products in the future is likely. Tesco recently launched its 'sustainable food basket', however there are currently only 20 products included.

Improving biodiversity

Growing one crop continuously is rarely sustainable, however, permanent pasture, managed well, can be good for the environment.

Managing soils, diversifying cropping and using wider rotations, using integrated pest management, reducing inputs, providing wildflower margins, planting more hedgerows and trees, sowing winter cover for birds, and linking up patches of habitat will all increase biodiversity on your farm. Any steps taken will also help to reduce your farm's environmental impact.

Information and advice can be found at:

Improving soil health

A step-by-step guide is provided in the relevant section of AHDB's Nutrient Management Guide (RB209) ahdb.org.uk/rb209.

AHDB's Nutrient Management Guide (RB209) - ahdb.org.uk/rb209 - provides guidance on creating a nutrient management plan. Most plans are created using farm management software or a bespoke spreadsheet such as that provided by Tried & Tested nutrientmanagement.org.

AHDB's guide to soil management, cultivation and crop establishment provides information on the pros and cons of reducing tillage ahdb.org.uk/arablesoils.

AHDB's soil management guide for arable crops explains the pros and cons of different tillage strategies. The guide complements AHDB's guide on soil management for horticulture. Visit ahdb.org.uk/greatsoils for more information.

AHDB's guide to the principles of soil management explains how to measure the health of your soil ahdb.org.uk/soil-principles.

Grazing the uplands is essential for enhancing and maintaining the environment. However, overgrazing will damage the soil, so stocking densities need to be checked depending on grazing availability to ensure they are at a sustainable level.

A grass ley can contribute significantly to a sustainable crop rotation, and reducing pest, weed and disease pressures. The ley and livestock manures will help restore soil organic matter (carbon) in soils. Trees can reduce soil erosion, help recycle nutrients and shelter livestock, reducing mortality and increase sheep daily live weight gains by 10-21%.

The benefits of cover crops depend on the species grown, see ahdb.org.uk/cover-crops for more information.

Improving soil organic matter (carbon) will improve soil structure, drainage and water holding capacity. Overall, you will see improvements in soil fertility and resilience to extreme weather. Visit ahdb.org.uk/GREATsoils for more information.

Potatoes are grown in a rotation with other crops and help to minimise pest, weed and disease pressure. Care should be taken when establishing and harvesting potatoes to minimise soil disturbance and to avoid causing compaction. Every effort should be made within the rotation to improve soil organic matter and soil structure. See ahdb.org.uk/greatsoils for more information.

Applying farmyard manure to soil improves soil organic matter (carbon) and will, over time, increase the amount of nitrogen mineralisation - that is to say, it will increase the availability of soil mineral nitrogen. Composted manure has a higher dry matter, reduced volumes and is easier to handle and spread. Composting reduces or eliminates the decline in nitrogen availability that commonly occurs when organic materials, such as sawdust or straw, are added directly to soil.

Outdoor pigs are part of a rotation with other crops and help to minimise pest, weed and disease pressure. Care should be taken to minimise soil disturbance and to avoid causing compaction and/or erosion. Every effort should be made within the rotation to improve soil organic matter and soil structure. See ahdb.org.uk/greatsoils for more information.

Pig production

Pigs provide a break in the rotation and pig manure is a valuable source of nutrients and soil organic matter (carbon) that will improve soil health.

Planning permission

Public money for public goods

Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) are likely to be implemented across the UK and will be the main form of agricultural support.

The requirements of Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) have yet to be decided by UK governments. AHDB will provide guidance when governments publish details of their schemes.

The Government has said that farmers will be paid for public goods - future payments will be dependent on providing public goods and farming in an environmentally sustainable way.

The requirements of Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) have yet to be decided by UK governments. AHDB will provide guidance when governments publish details of their schemes.

The requirements of Environmental Land Management Schemes have yet to be decided by UK governments. AHDB will provide guidance when governments publish details of their ELMS.

The requirements of Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) have yet to be decided by UK governments. AHDB will provide guidance when governments publish details of their ELMS.

Protecting air quality

The main activities causing water pollution in the UK are sewage discharges, road run off, urban drainage and run off from day to day living. Some agricultural practices contribute to run off but farmers take steps to reduce the risk of manure, fertilisers and soils getting into watercourses.

Restrictions on the use of fertilisers and organic materials are in place across the UK. In England Farming Rules for Water apply to all farmers and growers. In Scotland General Binding Rules apply.

Storing and using slurry

The Government's Clean Air Strategy requires all slurry stores to be covered by 2027. Evidence is being gathered at the moment to help decide what types of covers are most effective in reducing emissions and subsequently allowable. Fixed covers, floating covers, added materials (Leca or hexagon shapes) or even natural crusting could be included in a list of permitted covers. There is currently no information about grant funding. Any developments will be publicised as they occur.  For more information go to ahdb.org.uk/slurry.

Band spreaders and shallow-injection (5–7 cm deep) equipment allow accurate top-dressing of liquid materials across full tramline widths, without causing crop damage. An additional benefit of these application methods is that odour and ammonia emissions are reduced by 30–70% compared with conventional ‘splash-plate’ surface applications. See ahdb.org.uk/slurry for further information.

Slurry is a mixture of manure and urine produced by livestock. Dirty water is contaminated run-off from lightly fouled concrete yards or from the dairy/parlour that has been collected separately from slurry. Dirty water does not include liquids from weeping-wall stores, strainer boxes, slurry separators or silage effluent which are rich in nitrogen and regarded as slurries. Dirty water is not subject to NVZ restrictions but should be disposed of responsibly. For more information go to ahdb.org.uk/slurry.

The first priority is to make sure the infrastructure is not causing pollution. Once you are ready to make improvements contact the Environment Agency (EA) who will be able to provide advice and guidance. A proactive approach is welcomed rather than the EA needing to contact you following an incident. There is guidance available at gov.uk/guidance/storing-silage-slurry-and-agricultural-fuel-oil.

Sustainable faming

The UK climate and landscape is well suited to food production. Improvements in practices and technologies have made UK agricultural systems some of the most sustainable in the world (beef has a 50% lower, pork 8% lower and milk 46% lower carbon footprint than the global average). However, improvements can and are still being made to make it even more sustainable.

According to a major Defra report from the University of Manchester, "There is insufficient evidence available to state that organic agriculture overall would have less of an environmental impact than conventional agriculture. From the data we have identified, organic agriculture in particular poses its own environmental problems in the production of some foods, either in terms of nutrient release to water or in terms of climate-change burdens. There is no clear-cut answer to the question: which ‘trolley’ has a lower environmental impact - the organic one or the conventional one?" 

According to the NHS, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between foodstuffs produced organically and conventionally. See more: nhs.uk/news/food-and-diet/organic-food-is-no-better.   

Using water

Water use on individual farms varies greatly depending on size and farming sector. In the UK, agriculture is estimated to use 250 million cubic metres of water per year, from rainfall, mains water and abstracted from rivers and groundwater, which is around 3% of the UK’s total water usage.

In the UK 85% of the water needs of cattle is met by rainwater, with just 0.4% from the tap, or 67 litres per kg of beef. It is even less for lamb, with 97% from rainwater and just 0.1% or 49 litres from the tap. For context, the average shower in the UK is eight minutes and uses 62 litres of water, so an 8oz steak is less than two minutes in the shower.

There are lots of techniques and technologies out there that can help. AHDB took part in an EU-wide project on water called FERTINNOWA which reviewed all the available techniques and technologies (during the time of the project). Independent information on improving water availability and quality can be found at fertinnowa.com/factsheets-in-english.

It depends on the source of the water. Mains water is drinking water standard at the point of supply, therefore any deterioration in quality will be due to management of the water on site. Equipment may need to be cleaned or replaced if it is causing issues with quality of water supplied. Water abstracted (taken) from the environment may be subject to more potential contaminants such as bacteria, sediment and nutrients.

Depending on the farm and its use, it may be possible to install water treatment systems to treat water before use. This could be simply filtering out particles, UV or using a chemical oxidant.

Monitor and audit water use on the farm to see which processes offer the potential for water savings. Investigate capturing rainfall from roofs. Establish which farm operations require drinking water and where recycled or harvested rainfall might be used instead. On livestock farms separate clean and dirty water/slurry, both to reduce volume of slurry, but also to generate a further source of water to be used on farm.

Useful links

AHDB work on the environment Farm Excellence Programme
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