Hot topics

Technology, science and policy seem to
move at an ever faster pace and it can often be a battle to keep up with the latest news and innovations.  We’re also constantly bombarded with acronyms. 

So, Farming Futures has put together a simple guide to the commonly used phrases, innovations and topics in the field of sustainable agriculture. 

We’ve tried to cover everything from new innovations like Biochar to the big topic of population growth.  This section is designed to offer a simple to understand statement from our partners with links to further information or comment.

If you know of other relevant links or would like to suggest further topics for us to cover, please get in touch with us at

Click on the items on the list below to see more information.

Anaerobic digestion

Anaerobic digestion, popularly known as AD or biogas, is the controlled breakdown of organic matter without air to produce a combustible biogas and nutrient rich organic by-product.

AD systems can be located either on-farm or at a larger Centralised Anaerobic Digestion management facility (CAD plant). AD technology can have multiple benefits: increasing farm business profit; helping to mitigate climate change; and helping to dispose of waste.
For information on the latest funding and grants available please contact your Regional Development Agency (RDA).


Biochar was first used in the Amazon basin in order to enrich soils and improve fertility. It is a material produced through the pyrolysis (burning at high temperatures) of plant and waste feedstock. The resulting matter is a highly porous charcoal that is mixed into the soil in order to improve its water and nutrient retention. Very early research has suggested that Biochar can improve soil water and nutrient retention and reduce nitrous oxide and methane emissions.  The UK Biochar Research Centre is part of Edinburgh University and carries out research into the use of Biochar.

  • The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) is a non-profit organisation providing support and ideas to people who are interested in using biochar. They hold events around the world and run programmes supporting the expansion of biochar usage around the world.
  • The Biochar Organisation and The Biochar Fund provide information on Biochar and associated organisations.


Biofuels are mainly derived from biomass or bio waste. These fuels can be used for any purposes, but the main use for which they have to be brought is in the transportation sector.  There has been a lot of press coverage surrounding the food versus fuel debate.  The Government have set the industry the duel challenge of addressing food security (see Defra strategy Food 2030) by asking for more food production at the same time as setting renewable energy targets that have diverted some food crops to biofuel or biomass production.


Biomass is defined as any organic material from plants or animals. Biomass can be produced by farming, land management and forestry sectors and used for renewable energy generation.

  • See Fact sheet 19 on biomass and Case studies 2, 3, 6 and 11
  • See our past events archive for lots of useful presentations and resources on everything to do with Biomass systems and installation.

Carbon accounting for farms

Carbon accounting, or carbon foot printing, is a process to help you understand the amount of carbon (or other greenhouse gases) your business uses and sequesters.  There are different tools that suit different businesses.  Using carbon accounting is a vital first step in thinking about your businesses impact on climate change.

Environmental Stewardship and Climate Change

The primary objectives of Environmental Stewardship (ES) is to conserve wildlife, protect  the historic environment (including archaeological features and traditional farm buildings); to maintain and enhance landscape quality and character, to protect natural resources by improving water quality and reducing soil erosion and surface water run-off. And to promote public access and understanding of the countryside. Within the primary objectives ES also has secondary objectives for genetic conservation and flood management.

In meeting these objectives Environmental Stewardship will support the adaptation of the natural environment to climate change; and enhance the contribution of agriculture and land management to climate change mitigation.

Many of the scheme’s environmental options can also help reduce a farm’s carbon footprint. For example, Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) options such as buffer strips and wildflower seed mixes result in less inputs and energy use, so reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increase the amount of carbon stored in soils and vegetation. The Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) can also offer payments for restoring habitats important for storing carbon, such as peatlands, fen and saltmarsh.

We detail below some of the ES options which deliver the highest levels of mitigation.

The carbon savings delivered by ES are already making an important contribution to efforts to tackle the causes of climate change. Natural England has estimated that greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production in England would be 11% higher if there wasn’t a scheme in place. ES is also playing an important role in helping England’s wildlife adapt to a changing climate.

Natural England is currently working with the CLA and Savills to develop a ‘bolt-on’ to the Carbon Accounting for Land Managers (CALM) tool that will help farmers identify the carbon savings delivered by ES options and how they help reduce a farm’s carbon footprint.

Environmental Stewardship can help farmers meet some of the costs of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, whilst also delivering other key environmental benefits. For more details on the scheme, follow this link to the Natural England website.

The table below lists some of the ES options which can be expected to deliver the highest levels of mitigation, (although the actual level of GHG emissions saved will depend on the previous management).

ELS - Arable
Option       Description
O/EC4        Management of woodland edges
O/ED2        Take archaeological features out of cultivation
O/ED3        Minimum till on archaeological features
O/EE1/2/3  2m/ 4m/ 6m buffer strips on cultivated land
O/EE8        Buffering in-field ponds
O/EF1        Field corners    
O/EF7        Beetle banks
EF10          Unfertilised conservation headlands
EF11          Uncropped, cultivated margins
O/EG1        Undersown spring cereals

ELS - Grassland
Option        Description
O/EC4        Management of woodland edges
O/ED5        Archaeological features on grassland
O/EE4/5/6   2m/ 4m/ 6m buffers on intensive grassland
O/EE7         Buffering in-field ponds
O/EK1         Field corners

Option        Description
HQ8C        Creation of fen    
HC14        Creation of wood pasture
HC6          Ancient trees in intensive grassland
HJ6           Preventing erosion on intensive grassland
HQ5          Creation of reedbeds
HL10         Restoration of moorland
HL8           Restoration of rough grazing for birds
HE10         Floristically enhanced grass margins

Feed in Tariff

The Feed-In Tariff (FITs) scheme are payments to ordinary energy users for renewable electricity they generate, and will start from 1 April 2010. The use of FITs are hoped to encourage additional low carbon electricity generation, particularly by organisations, businesses, communities and individuals who are not traditionally engaged in the electricity market. This 'clean energy cashback' will allow many people to invest in small scale low carbon electricity, in return for a guaranteed payment both for the electricity they generate and export.

They have been introduced by the Government to increase the level of renewable energy in the UK towards our target of 15% of total energy from renewables by 2020.

The Tariffs give three financial benefits:

  • A payment for all the electricity you produce, whether you use it yourself, or:
  • Export it into the grid, in which case you get an additional bonus payment, plus
  • For any energy you produce and use yourself, you will reduce your electricity bill.

Microgeneration installations (capacity of 50kW and below) installed before 15 July 2009 and accredited under the Renewables Obligation (RO) before 31 March 2010 will transfer to the FITs scheme at a tariff level equivalent to previous support that was available through the RO.
The FITS do not cover heating.  The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) will incentivise generation of heat from renewable sources at all scales. The Government launched the consultation on 1 February 2010.

Genetic modification (GM) and climate change

Nothing seems to polarise the opinion of the agricultural world more that GM.

Campaigners and the public have voiced many concerns over the technology which include fears over its safety, and the pressure developing nations and small farmers could suffer through increased costs. However, in the light of food security pressures, population growth and climate change. Many believe that GM must have a place in our agricultural future.

GM crops are increasingly part of the global food and feed supply chain. In 2009, 134 million hectares of GM crops were grown around the world, in 25 countries by over 13 million farmers. The top countries in terms of area are US, Argentina, Brazil, India, Canada and China, with 90% of farms growing GM crops being small scale and resource-poor. In Europe, there are over 100,000 hectares of GM maize grown, mostly in Spain but also in the Czech Republic, Romania and Portugal. This maize is resistant to the European corn borer pest and for the last 10 years has been the only GM crop commercially cultivated in the EU. This year, the European Commission has also just approved a new starch potato to be grown for use in adhesive and textile production.

Current GM crops generally offer benefits for farmers and in some cases are reducing the amounts of chemicals used, but many feel they do not yet offer benefits for consumers or society as a whole.  GM technology could provide longer term benefits with new types of crop that help to make agriculture more efficient and sustainable. Research into drought resistant, nitrogen fixing and higher yielding varieties is underway.  However, at the moment GM products promise little if anything in terms of reducing the dependence of modern intensive agriculture on fossil fuels and hydro-carbon-based inputs.

The UK Government say in the Food 2030 report that “GM, like nanotechnology, is not a technological panacea for meeting the varied and complex challenges of food security, but could have some potential to help meet future challenges. Safety must remain our top priority and the Government will continue to be led by science when assessing the safety of GM technologies.’

It will take more than improved crop breeding to meet the challenge of ensuring food security and there are many non-GM measures that should be employed now, but we need to look at all the means at our disposal to find solutions to our immediate and longer term food security and climate change concerns.

  • See the Farming Futures fact sheets for ideas on how you can profit from adapting to and mitigating climate change.

Ground source heat pumps

Ground source heat pumps use a buried pipe which transfers stored heat from the ground into a building to provide heating. As well as ground source heat pumps, air source and water source heat pumps are also available.

  • Watch the Farming Futures video case study with Philip Pearson
  • See the Ground Source Heat Pump Association (GSHPA)’s introduction to the technology here.
  • The Energy Savings Trust has further information about the technology including some savings comparisons with other heating systems
  • The BERR funded low carbon buildings programme provides grants to help with the costs of installing a ground source heat pump.


Hydroelectricity is electricity generated by the production of power through use of the gravitational force of falling or flowing water.

Small in-flow hydro is relatively cheap and can be cost effective especially where it meets local electricity demand. Making a profit will depend on the flow and head available, the cost of the installation, and the cost of grid connection.

The following equation will help you figure the profitability of your plant:

Power (watts) = Head (m) x Flow (litres/sec) x 9.81 (gravitational constant ‘g’).

A typical water to wire efficiency is around 70%, so you should multiply the result by 0.7 to get the actual amount of electricity that you can expect from the site.

Most sites vary considerably in flow between winter and summer, reflecting the differences in rainfall. It is important to make sure that the flow is sufficient to run the turbine, sometimes installing two turbines will allow you to extract the maximum capacity when the water flow allows.
For low head systems, costs may be in the region of £4,000 per kW installed up to about 10kW and would drop per kW for larger schemes.

For medium heads, there is a fixed cost of about £10,000 and then about £2,500 per kW up to around 10kW - so a typical 5kW domestic scheme might cost £20-£25,000. Unit costs drop for larger schemes.

Peak Oil

Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. This will be because of actual availability as well as the difficulty and expense of extracting oil from increasingly hard to reach places.

Optimistic estimations of peak production forecast the global decline will begin by 2020 or later. Pessimistic predictions say that we’ve already reached a decline, or we’re on the cusp.

The obvious result of this is the rising price of oil.  This will affect farmers because of the amount of products used in agriculture that are derived from the oil industry such as fertilisers and plastics. Alternatives will need to be found.

Peak Phosphorus

Phosphorus (chemical symbol P) is an highly reactive element that does not naturally occur as a free element, but is instead bound up in phosphates. Phosphates typically occur in inorganic rocks.

Phosphorus is one of the three major nutrients required for plant growth: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K).  Most phosphorus is obtained from mining phosphate rock. Crude phosphate is now used in organic farming, whereas chemically treated forms such as superphosphate, triple superphosphate, or ammonium phosphates are used in non-organic farming.

It is predicted that we will see we a global peak in phosphate rock reserves by 2040.  Peak oil can be replaced with other forms of energy once it becomes too scarce, but at present there is no substitute for phosphorus in food production (Cordell, et al, 2009). P cannot be produced or synthesized in a laboratory.


Photovoltaics (PV) is the term used for any technology related to the use of solar cells to convert sunlight to electricity. Photovoltaic production has been doubling every two years, increasing by an average of 48 percent each year since 2002, making it the world’s fastest-growing energy technology.

Population and agriculture

We are often asked about the growing global and UK population and how this is going to affect agriculture.

In the last one hundred years we’ve seen a rapid increase in population due to medical advances and the massive increase in agricultural productivity made possible by the Green Revolution. This has lead to a global population of 6.8 billion in 2010 which is expected to rise to 9.15 billion by 2050. Human consumption of resources is already overshooting Earth's capacity to provide.

As the population rises there will be more demands on land, water and food availability and the increased need for renewable energy generation may mean that some land is lost to fuel production.  To prepare for these changes it is advisable for farmers to investigate how they can become more water, energy and input efficient.

Precision farming

Precision farming is also referred to at Smart Technology.  It requires the use of new technologies, such as global positioning (GPS), sensors, satellites or aerial images, and information management tools (GIS) to assess and understand variations. Collected information may be used to more precisely evaluate optimum sowing density, estimate fertilizers and other inputs needs, and to more accurately predict crop yields.

Satellites allow farmers to easily survey their land.  Global Positioning Systems (GPS) monitors can find the location of a field to within one meter. It can then present a series of GIS maps that demonstrate which fields are moist or dry, and where there is erosion of soil and other soil factors that stunt crop growth. The data can be used by the farmer to automatically regulate the machine application of fertilizer and pesticide.

There are many benefits including cost efficiencies, reduced labour hours and the environmental benefits of reducing inputs.

ROCS – Renewable Obligation Certificate

The Renewables Obligation (RO) is the government’s main financial incentive for renewable electricity. The RO works by placing an obligation on licensed electricity suppliers to source a specified, and annually increasing, proportion of their electricity sales from renewable sources, or pay a penalty. The Renewable Energy Strategy (RES), published on 15 July 2009, included announcements on expanding and extending the RO to enable it to deliver close to 30% renewable electricity or more by 2020.

The RO is administered by Ofgem who issue Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs) to renewable electricity generators. Previously, 1 ROC was issued for each megawatt-hour (MWh) of eligible generation, regardless of technology. As of 1 April 2009, the reforms introduced mean that different technologies now receive different numbers of ROCs, depending on their costs and potential for large-scale deployment. For example, onshore wind continues to receive 1 ROC/MWh, offshore wind currently 1.5 ROCs/MWh, and energy crops 2 ROCs/MWh.

Suppliers present ROCs to Ofgem to demonstrate their compliance with the obligation. Where they do not present sufficient ROCs they have to pay a penalty known as the buy-out price. This is set at £37.19/MWh for 2009/10 (linked to RPI). 

The RO is being extended from its current end date of 2027 to at least 2037 for new projects, in order to provide greater long-term certainty for investors. 

Solar Thermal heating

Solar water heating uses heat from the sun to warm water in pipes, usually tracked across a roof, which can be used for hot water or for heating a central heating system. Many of the same considerations relating to the site apply to solar hot water systems as to PV (see above).

Find out more by visitng the Solar Trade Association website

Zero Carbon Farming

We’re often asked if zero carbon farming is possible. Can the net effect of a farm on climate change ever be zero, once you take into account the carbon captured by soil and woodland on the farm?

As with many things, this depends on a clear definition and the boundaries set. Being ‘zero carbon’ depends on greenhouse gas emissions being balanced by the ‘locking-up’ or sequestration of carbon on the farm, for example in soil carbon and farm woodland. This assumes as well that those carbon stores will be maintained in the long term. When permanent pasture is ploughed up, or woodland is felled, carbon stores will be released into the atmosphere.

Alternatively you could consider that if a farm is producing renewable energy and selling some back to the grid, that this is displacing the use of fossil fuel energy by other users, so the carbon could be ‘credited’ to the farm.

Wind - Factsheets

This factsheet provides an introduction to some of the issues that are going to be a significant part of the future of UK farming. It outlines some of the headline challenges that we are going to have to deal with, but also the...
Onshore generation of electricity from wind power can represent a significant business opportunity for UK farmers and land managers. Wind power can be harnessed by the installation of a wind turbine or turbines that will generate a clean and...

Wind - Case Studies

Rob and Emma Harrison: Focus on small-scale renewablesRob and Emma diversified part of their farm in early 2009 to allow school children and other groups to visit the farm and learn about the...
Stephen Ramsden: Focus on wind energyLong before much of the farming world had acknowledged the benefits of renewable energy, Stephen Ramsden and his family took the plunge of installing...
Richard Gedge, a beef and sheep farmer based in Exmoor uses both wind and biomass to power and heat his farm. With a payback period of 5 years and...