Isle of Gometra — a peopled wildness

          Roc Sandford




Sustainability Note (a work in progress).


Hope Island: In August 2019, Gometra declared a climate and ecological emergency.  This was covered in the Herald, the Daily Record, the Scotsman and the Times.


We aim to tell the truth and act as if it is true.  We have called ourselves, in tribute to Dr Sylvia Earle's marine Hope Spots, a Hope Island, which means our ambition is to become carbon neutral before 2025.  However, there is debate about the carbon footprint of the extensive livestock husbandry on which Gometra depends.  What follows is a summary of our thinking on this issue—


Carbon Neutral versus Drawdown:  When people talk about becoming carbon neutral, they are not usually talking about drawdown (removal) of the cumulative historic forcing contributed by their activity. They usually mean that their continuing activity is not adding further to forcing. Forcing is the trapping of excess heat in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane.  As explained below, continuing extensive, low fossil-fuel livestock farming like ours does not add significantly, if at all, to forcing—it is at most approximately carbon neutral, the equivalent of closing your airline or your cement works. Ceasing extensive livestock production like ours is carbon negative, the equivalent of extracting all the historic CO2 emitted by your airline or cement works since it started.   Carbon neutrality is by definition a stage we must pass through on the path to the carbon negativity or drawdown we will need to repair our planet's climate and ecology.  Much of this drawdown will need to be provided by ceasing livestock husbandry, as well as closing airlines and cement works, so it is important to understand the mechanisms at work.


Public Goods: Gometra delivers public goods such as amenity, employment, housing, conservation, biodiversity, wilding, investment, and solar & biofuel renewables.  But, perhaps above all, displacement of food production from primary rain forest to poor-quality and already denuded temperate hill land.  By any reasonable value system, people should (given its environmental footprint) not be eating meat, and must be discouraged from doing so.  But while they are, let’s produce meat in the least damaging way possible which, subject to building an accurate model of carbon flows and ecological damage, may include extensive grass-fed hill farming systems like ours.  If, in phasing out meat production, we start by closing the least harmful operations, we may inadvertently be increasing average embodied carbon/environmental damage in meat.  (Gometra's poor hill land cannot currently be viably used for commercial plant-based human food production.)


Methane: Flora in the rumen of ruminants such as sheep and cattle emit methane which the ruminants burp into the atmosphere.  Methane, like CO2, is a greenhouse gas, and contributes to the rate of forcing.  Excess heat is causing the climate emergency and ecological collapse. Methane is approximately 128 times more potent than CO2 as a forcer, but unlike CO2, much of which remains in biopsheric and atmospheric circulation on geological time-scales, methane breaks down, having about a ten year half-life.


FAO: Most carbon audits (quantifications of the enterprise's contribution to forcing) of livestock farms use an FAO methodology for equating methane with CO2. The FAO methodolgy ignores effects beyond a hundred year time-horizon, to arrive at a rule of thumb that methane is 28 times more potent than CO2.   George Monbiot in his articles villainising extensive sheep and cattle farmers is using this methodology.  A recent carbon audit of Gometra, we believe using the FAO methodology, is here.  Relative to comparable farms, Gometra's environmental impact calculated using this methodology is low, but in absolute terms it is still significant.  However, this methodology has been challenged, e.g. by Simon Fairlie (see Resilience, May 10th 2019 and The Land 22, ).


Steady State: Fairlie makes the point that the underlying reality is poorly modelled by the FAO, since in practice methane emissions from any fixed-size flock or herd will reach a steady state in which methane being added will be balanced by methane breaking down, and after that point there is no additional contribution to forcing by livestock methane.  This means that extensive grass-fed systems may be carbon neutral (i.e no cumulative increase in forcing from continuing the activity). They will however have contributed a one-off increase in forcing at inception, probably in neolithic times.  And there can be drawdown of this original excess forcing contribution at any time, by ceasing livestock husbandry.


Opportunity Cost: However, even in this case there is still a potential opportunity cost in that extensive grass-fed livestock systems may not be as carbon negative as, for examples, wilding or commercial spruce forestry with, ideally, storage of the wood produced.


Commitments: On Gometra we are contractually committed by the Scottish government to keep ruminant livestock for at least the next four years. Whilst we have already partially divested from livestock and delivered a large one-off reduction in forcing, a system of subsidy and legal incentives and disincentives, sponsored by the EU, hinder us from viably divesting further, and (whilst retaining a livestock element while this can be justified for employment, landscape and heritage purposes) switching from meat farming to carbon & amenity farming as we should like.


Subsidies:  Scotland has welfare, environmental and employment laws which increase costs for domestic producers.  In the absence of tariffs and subsidies, domestic production will be displaced by lower-cost global producers not subject to these laws and costs.  Tariffs enable the continuation of domestic production in this higher cost environment, which has food security, employment and equity benefits.  However, in the farming case, tariffs increase the cost of food for domestic consumers which is politically unpopular.  This is the best argument for replacing them with subsidies, to avoid food production in general being displaced offshore whilst keeping food costs low.  A problem, however, is that WTO rules discourage production-based subsidies.  This is why the EU Common Agricultural Policy has moved towards area-based payments which, however, are politically unpalatable, because it looks like farmers being paid for owning land.  Furthermore, while there are also significant 'greening' elements, EU subsidies continue to be implicitly production-based, rather than public-good-based, since to qualify for the land based payments, the farmer has to retain a minimum livestock stocking density.


Brexit: Brexit has created a policy opportunity for the Scottish and British governments to rebalance their incentives and the legal obligations they impose on farmers away from livestock and towards carbon farming, but without such a policy shift it is nearly impossible for a commercial operation such as ours to make the transition. To create change, the people to lobby and influence are those who frame the obligations and incentives, not those who respond to them.


Harmful incentive: The Scottish Government requirement of a minimum stocking density to access subsidies is an example of a harmful policy from the point of view of climate disaster, since it keeps methane emissions from agriculture higher than they would otherwise be.


Potential helpful incentive: Carbon Farming is a shorthand to describe farming which endeavours, as well as producing food, to mitigate the climate and ecological disasters by sequestrating carbon, eliminating fossil fuel use, and reducing methane and nitrogen dioxide emissions.  The best way to enable carbon farming and the production of public goods by farmers is to internalise both negative and positive externalities by means of a positive or negative tax or subsidy (usually called a carbon tax or a pollution tax, but more effectively a positive or negative payment for economic externalities.  Economic externalities are costs and benefits imposed on society for which the economic agent imposing them does not pay or get paid.  An example of a negative externality is the harmful effect on climate of flying, for which the passenger or the airline does not pay.  An example of a positive externality is the beneficial effect on climate of excess carbon sequestration in undisturbed pasture soils, for which the farmer or the food consumer is not paid).


Central Planning: Without such a tax/subsidy system to fully internalise economic externalities, it is impossible for anyone to calculate how to allocate resources efficiently.  The central planning predicament is well understood and it means that any solutions will be severely sub-optimal and so almost definitely fail—given unfolding climate and ecological disaster, sub-optimal solutions are insufficient. Only a carbon tax will solve the resource allocation problem, and it has the bonus of either being fiscally neutral or enabling implicitly progressive redistribution as democracy sees fit.


Double-counting: There is also double counting element which is central to mitigation: to the extent to which she has a choice, the true owner of such externalities is not so much their producer, as their consumer—the motorist, the flyer, the meat-eater, the person, myself. And the consumer, ultimately, is in the strongest position to deliver change by consuming frugality and asceticism.  This is of course qualified when advertising, corporate lobbying and the financing of academic and media deniers successfully manipulates behaviour and limits opportunities or information available to a consumer.  Further, there are needs which the consumer does not have any reasonable option not to satisfy, such as those for food and shelter.


Considerations for a Model


Elements of the semi-qualitative model we are attempting to build of this extremely complex and poorly understood system, in an attempt to inform our own decision-making around divestment, are as follows—


Continuing livestock farming in our extensive, low fossil-fuel practice, due to breakdown of atmospheric methane and resulting steady state of atmospheric methane levels, creates little cumulative additional forcing after a historic (probably neolithic) build-up. Continuing fossil fuel consumption at identical levels (including any continued fossil fuel element of our own practice) creates linearly increasing forcing.


Continuing extensive livestock farming causes linearly increasing cumulative additional energy trapped in the planetary system, unlike fossil-fuel based activities which create quadratically increasing cumulative additional energy trapped


Graphs of forcing and cumulative heat against time for continuing activities (such as a farm or an airport), and for one off activities (such as a lamb or a flight), are helpful.


These considerations are qualified or partially offset, in some cases only temporarily, by short and long term costs and benefits.  While there is an element of the ridiculous in mixing human time-scale effects with geological time-scale effects, some of these include—


Additional outgoing thermal radiation flux from a hotter earth system.


High levels of carbon sequestration in undisturbed pasture soils.


Methanotrophs in undisturbed pasture soils.


Satisfying demand using already degraded ecosystems, rather than pristine locations such as virginal rainforest.


Food security.


Fabric production—displacing future environmental pollution embodied in synthetic fabrics and their use.  Insulation and comfort delivered by woollen fabric permits additional displacement of energy consumption for central heating & metabolic calories.


Non-fossil fuel based manure produced for vegetable production systems and cooking fuel.


Other public goods: employment, amenity, etc.


Some other issues to account for—


Opportunity cost of maximum carbon sequestration land use.


Loss of pasture-based habitats—wildflowers, butterflies, fungi.  Some can be preserved in a mosaic.


Potential engineering of rumen methanotrophs or biome.


Additional policy leverage from being an insider currently engaged in extensive livestock production.


True embodied carbon and ecological harm of other systems, e.g. fertilisers and manure in commercial vegetable production.


This is a work in progress and any feedback is welcomed.  Please see our enquiries page.


Marine Plastic


Plastic washes up faster on our beaches than we have the resources to clear or transport it, especially since the farm has no vehicles or functioning boats of its own and the local authority provides no rubbish disposal facilities on Gometra.  We are grateful if visitors can help by taking some rubbish away with them to the bins at Ulva Ferry on Mull, and there is also a scheme in the gallery to donate towards the cost of contractors clearing and transporting plastic from Gometra's shores.


All text and Images © Roc Sandford, Gometra, 2015 unless otherwise stated.  Please let us know of any corrections or suggestions.  To contact us click here.