Arable Farmer-led Group: climate change evidence

A summary of existing evidence around the arable sector, including greenhouse gas emissions produced by the Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services (RESAS) division.

Executive Summary

This report highlights evidence on the Scottish arable sector and its contribution to Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. For the purposes of this report, the 'arable sector' includes cereals, other crops, horticulture, and vegetables (incl. for human consumption, stock feed and seeds).

The main findings from this report are:

Context and structure:

  • In 2019, the combined output of arable produce in Scotland (cereals, cereals, crops, fruit and vegetables) accounted for a third of agricultural output with a value of £1.1 billion.
  • Around 550,000 hectares were used to grow cereals, crops, fruit and vegetables, accounting for around 10% of Scotland's total agricultural area. This is also equivalent to 12% of the total arable land in the UK
  • In 2018-19, the average Scottish farm had a farm business income (incl. support payments) of around £38,700. On average, General Cropping and Cereal farms show significantly higher profitability at £132,000 and £64,000 respectively.
  • When support payments are excluded, over 60% of cereal farms and just under 80% of General cropping farms remain profitable, compared to 28% of farms across the agricultural sector as a whole.
  • Production and destinations of arable produce vary with supply and demand. The area, yield and quality of crops can vary due to land suitability, environmental conditions, pests and diseases. Not all arable produce is intended for or fit for human consumption. Around 35% of cereal production went to animal feed in 2019.

Greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity:

  • Large reductions in emissions are required from all sectors of the Scottish economy to meet Scotland's legally binding 2045 Net Zero target, and the target of a 75% reduction from 1990 levels by 2030.
  • Agriculture represented 18% of Scotland's emissions, or 7.5 MtCO2e[1], in 2018. The Scottish Government's Climate Change Plan update requires the equivalent of a 31% reduction in agricultural emissions by 2032 from 2018 levels, a pace around four times faster than historic declines.
  • Emissions from arable farms account for around 1.6 MtCO2e, or 21% of total agricultural emissions, the majority of which are from farm vehicles and soil management.
  • Evidence on technically feasible mitigation specific to arable and tillaging covers (amongst other things) grain/legume rotations, pH management, and variable rate nitrogen & lime application.
  • Evidence suggests these measures could deliver reductions around 0.24 to 0.3 MtCO2e, if applied to their maximum technical capacity based on current levels of arable land. This equates to a 15-19% reduction of arable emissions and, if matched with equivalent reductions across all agricultural sector, would not be sufficient to meet agriculture's envelopes by 2032, falling short by around half.
  • The Climate Change Committee states changes in farming practices, woodland planting and reductions in livestock numbers are all required to achieve net zero. Their advice also highlights three key changes required to reduce agricultural emissions:

1 - Diet change with their main pathway to net-zero assuming a 20% reduction in UK consumption of red meat by 2030, rising to 35% by 2050

2 – Low-carbon farming practices, similar to those outlined above

3 – Productivity measures to improve crop yields and reduce stocking rates

  • The Climate Change Committee have also stressed that not only are the changes outlined critical for agriculture to reduce its emissions but also critical to free up the land required for other sectors to achieve the emissions reductions needed.
  • Scotland has recognised loss of biodiversity as a twin challenge alongside the climate emergency. Overall, biodiversity benefits from a mix of habitats and is influenced by land use intensities. Declines in biodiversity can be directly linked to agricultural intensification and pesticide use. However there are proven ways to improve biodiversity on arable farms including through management of hedgerows, field margins, crop rotation, retaining winter stubble and use of green manure.

Performance and productivity:

  • Evidence suggests that Scotland is mid-table in international comparisons when it comes to agricultural productivity growth. This report sets out some potential options for increasing agricultural productivity in Scotland.
  • As with other farms types in Scotland, the performance of Cereals and General Cropping farms varies, both between and within farm types.
  • Cereal farms' efficiency in particular is volatile, potentially due to their specialisation and vulnerability to global market prices, weather and supply – more so than many other farm types in Scotland.



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