In a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, NFU president Minette Batters said such ambitious measures were essential to compete with other nations on green standards.
She said emissions must reach “net zero” by 2040, meaning any remaining gases produced are removed from the atmosphere.
Agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, and is responsible for 10 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gases.
Farm emissions come not only from CO2, but also from methane and nitrous oxides released by livestock and fertilisers.
Ms Batters compared British farming favourably with other nations when it came to environmental credentials, but said British farmers must still strive to do better.
“The FAO [Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations] estimates UK beef production is 2.5 times more efficient than the world average, and compared with South America four times more efficient,” she said.
“Competitors in our market from Ireland to New Zealand have laid down the gauntlet, and I am here to pick it up today.
“I believe we can match and beat their lead – our aim must be ambitious, to get our industry to net zero across all greenhouse gas inventories by 2040 or before.”
The move marks a significant increase in ambition compared with previous industry-wide targets.
Government adviser the Committee on Climate Change released two reports in November laying out a strategy for decarbonising British agriculture.
It recommended radical changes to land use that rewarded farmers for helping to curb climate change, while also maintaining food production.
The government has announced plans to pay farmers for preserving “public goods”, for example promoting clean air and water, and restoring habitats that can act as carbon sinks.
Some campaigners say the current strategy being proposed does not go far enough in encouraging all farmers to look after Britain’s vulnerable habitats.
They have called for tough minimum standards that all farmers must follow to preserve the environment, and assistance from the government to aid their transition.
However, the NFU has expressed concern that too much focus on environmental services may compromise the UK’s food security following Brexit.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies