Climate Crisis and the Environment

National Food Strategy: Farming, Meat And Climate Change

Picture of a group of cows on a field
Rian Patel

Rolling fields of mustard yellows, greens and cereal browns cover so much of the British Isles. Complementing the arable land, you may see sheep grazing, cows sitting, and chickens wandering. The National Food Strategy views these sights as traditional and important to the landscape and culture of England and the wider UK. Roast dinners, it reasons, are an unshakable image of the British dining room table. However, as Rian Patel discusses, all this comes at the expense of the natural environment and climate.

Henry Dimbleby, the government’s ‘food tsar’, seeks to address the ‘Junk-Food Cycle’ in the National Food Strategy Part 2. The strategy aims to reduce diet-related inequality in the country, improve our land usage, and ‘create a long-term shift in our food culture’ through a total of 14 recommendations to the government; some of these have been looked at in a separate article written for Impact: ‘National Food Strategy: Inequality and the ‘Junk-Food Cycle’’. Just as improving the health of millions of people here in England and the UK is a focus of the strategy, so too is improving the health of the environment and climate.

Presidents and executives, from the Country Land and Business Association to the Soil Association, and venerated economist Sir Partha Dasgupta, among others, have all stressed and valued the importance of this review. It matters. The food system – agriculture, food production, transportation and retail combined – accounts for 25-30% of global emissions, second only to the energy sector. In the UK, it too reaches 30% of our emissions, when factoring in our food imports.

The Green Revolution sparked huge changes in the world’s food system in the last century. To match the rocketing rise in the human population, growth and supply of food needed to be ramped up too. Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize, is described as the father of the revolution.

This has come at an environmental cost

Borlaug created new breeds of wheat and is famously credited as having saved 1 billion people from starvation. His work, put together with modern irrigation, fertilisers, pesticides and more, helped to create high-yield, intensive farming. This slashed the land space required to grow the same number of crops successfully and gave rise to a surplus supply of cheap high-calorie foods.

However, this has come at an environmental cost. That cost is greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and the skewing of carbon, nitrogen and water cycles. 

The food system’s success in feeding the world has been incredibly valuable, but to meet climate and biodiversity targets, there needs to be some reform. Climate change could have many implications on the success of growing food in the future, not just in the UK but around the world too.

In a country where 70% of the land is farmland, the UK has a lot it can do. Parts of the system such as processing, transportation, retail and others can undergo electrification, allowing for (future) energy supply by renewables. Nestlé UK and Ireland, has already reduced operational emissions by 60% since 2007.

Yet, the strategy recommends some farmland should be used to sequester (remove) carbon. It suggests that a mixture of high-yield and low-yield farming, and land for nature, is best for biodiversity. This would be achieved by creating the ‘Rural Land Use Framework’ described in a recommendation. The strategy also recommends farmers receive appropriate payments until at least 2029, for nature restoration, woodland management and carbon sequestering.

The emissions tied to meat are relatively high compared to all other foodstuffs

Stressed numerous times in the National Food Strategy is that the public is against a potential meat tax. Although, it is made abundantly clear that meat consumption should be reduced. In order to meet the government’s current health and climate targets, this would have to be by about 30% by 2032 when compared to 2019 levels, especially for those consuming above current guidelines.

The emissions tied to meat are relatively high compared to all other foodstuffs. This is particularly true of beef and lamb. Both cattle and sheep are classified as ‘ruminants’ (this describes their digestive systems) which leads to the emission of methane – a potent greenhouse gas. Their manure also releases methane and nitrous dioxide, another strong greenhouse gas.

And not all meat is created equal. Factors such as whether deforestation took place for rearing animals, and how suitable land is for pasture, can add to emissions. This is in addition to how intensively reared the animal is, with high intensity correlating to lower emissions. Although, this has an impact on animal welfare.

Reducing methane emission is a key mechanism in reducing the effect and contribution to climate change. However, the challenge is immense. A striking graphic in the strategy shows us that the combined weight of all animals reared for food, globally, dwarfs that of wild animals (vertebrates on land). Cattle having the largest combined weight.  

There is no recommendation to exclusively tackle meat consumption

85% of UK farmland is used to rear animals, but that only provides us with 32% of our calories. That land, the strategy says, could be used more efficiently for biodiversity or climate-related causes. For this issue, the strategy simply redirects us and explains the importance of protein alternatives, ‘lab-grown’ meat and plant-based alternatives.

There is no recommendation to exclusively tackle meat consumption given in the strategy, despite its importance. A focus on encouraging technology to cut methane emissions across the meat supply chain, given by the strategy, does not seem to cut as deep in solving the problem as other recommendations do for land use, diet-related inequalities and the junk-food cycle.  

Waste, trade and data collection are other important issues raised with recommendations given in the National Food Strategy Part 2. It is a near-comprehensive document of all factors interwoven that produce our food system.

The food system needs to work in order to feed us healthily. It needs to work to support biodiversity and reduce impacts on climate change. It needs to work for everyone to reduce diet-related inequalities. This, and more, is what the strategy sets out to achieve.

It aims to give children and the future of this country a better relationship with food; whether this will be the case remains to be seen. There are costs, but the strategy writes of a potential long-term benefit of £126 billion, alongside the betterment of human and environmental health.

Rian Patel

Featured Photo by Rockin’Rita from Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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