LONDON-Farmers are on the front line of climate change - vulnerable to changes in temperature and rainfall, as well as increasingly frequent extreme weather events. They also face criticism, in particular over greenhouse gas emissions from the meat and dairy industry, with calls for a move to a more plant-based diet. Agriculture is currently responsible for about 9% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from methane.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU), which represents 55,000 UK farmers, has set a target of net-zero emissions in British farming by 2040.

That is not enough for some environmentalists, who say a comprehensive overhaul of farming practices and a move to less intensive production is long overdue.

Sending in robots

Scientists in Wiltshire are part of a growing group of experts around the world developing small battery-powered robots that could drastically cut tractor use. Tractors use diesel, a major source of carbon emissions in farming. “Using robots cuts the energy used in cultivation by about 90%,” says Sarra Mander of the Salisbury-based Small Robot Company.

Using drones to

map fields

Drones and tractor-mounted sensors are also being used to help farmers work out the exact patterns of moisture, weeds and pests. The data is fed to precision machinery to target areas that need work - and leave the rest undisturbed. Nitrogen fertiliser takes a lot of energy to produce and, particularly if it is applied at the wrong time and in the wrong quantities, bacteria act on it to make nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is 200 to 300 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Planting more trees

Like Becky, many environmental campaigners also believe applying new technology without fundamental change to intensive farming practices is not enough. Nick Rau, of Friends of the Earth, says: “New technology is helpful - but simple, low-tech solutions, looking at whole farms over a number of seasons have been grossly neglected.” Nick believes there’s huge potential in a range of solutions and points, in particular, to tree planting.

Keeping livestock outside for longer

Farmers who keep their animals outdoors for longer in the UK can help to cut emissions thousands of miles away. When animals are taken indoors, they are sometimes fed on soya imported from Latin America.

Cutting methane emissions

Cows and sheep produce methane in their digestive systems.Methane produces 21 times as much warming in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Whilst carbon dioxide is the biggest concern for many other industries, in farming methane is a major worry. The NFU points to many farmers using methane from manures and slurries to generate electricity and says the British livestock industry is one of the most efficient and sustainable in the world. But the methane problem has generated a whole range of other approaches.