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Low-carbon pig flies in face of climate change

JOHN Ibbett and pigs go back a long way. "The pig manager pushed me round in a pram," recalls Ibbett, whose family have been farming on the same site since 1939.

Now he's proud his family farm can turn muck into electricity, using new technology paid for by a multi-million pound windfall. His Bedfordia Group is one of only a few companies with farm-based biogas plants in Britain.

Scientists complain that the world has so far failed to support agriculture in the fight against climate change, focusing instead on more visible emissions from factories and power plants.

Ibbett raised part of the cash for his multi-million, three-year-old venture from a property sale far beyond the reach of most family-owned farms. Although his is a rarity in Britain, more biogas plants are being established in Denmark, Germany and developing countries.

That momentum could be a precursor for much bigger climate benefits, from changing farming methods to using the soil's capacity to store vast amounts of carbon. Experts say this is an area so far almost entirely ignored by policy makers.

Soils as well as trees can suck carbon out of the air, boosting what experts call terrestrial carbon. Farmers can nurture carbon underground as well as crops above by using longer rotations, not over-grazing pasture and ploughing less.

Ibbett's plant, 90 kilometers north of London, traps methane emissions from food and farm waste in giant vats and then burns the powerful greenhouse gas to produce electricity, preventing it from reaching the atmosphere.

Farmers are famously not short of ideas on how to make money and the managing director of Bedfordia Group's farming business, Ian Smith, is turning his marketing skills to a climate premium.

Trying to sell part of the farm's annual production of 23,000 pigs for bacon to supermarket group J. Sainsbury, Smith says the Bedfordia pigs are one-third less carbon-emitting than others.

First, the methane emissions from their manure is trapped and burned. Second, the electricity produced replaces high-carbon power. Third, the final product is a soil additive that displaces more energy-intensive nitrogen fertilizer.

"They like the concept of a low-carbon pig, but even with our size of business it's quite difficult," Smith said, referring to the economies of scale the supermarket seeks.

Low-carbon pigs may not easily fly but directly curbing greenhouse gas emissions from farming is important. Farming contributes as much to global warming as all the world's planes, cars and trucks, and that will increase as the world tries to feed an extra 3 billion people by 2050.

Scientists also want more focus especially on the soil at United Nations climate talks which resume in two weeks' time in Bonn and are meant to thrash out by December a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol.


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