Real climate action? Look beyond meat.

By Sue Pritchard

10th August 2021

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s latest report on climate change is an urgent call to action that cannot be ignored. In the face of this and other pressing challenges, FFCC Chief Executive Sue Pritchard asks: what radical and practical actions can be taken now, to speed a transition to a fair and sustainable future?

I’ve spent the weekend trying to make sense of two fundamentally contradictory positions. On the one hand, the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report affirms that human impact on the climate crisis is worse even than we had thought. On important indicators, we are closer to critical tipping points than expected. The UK government’s climate envoy Alok Sharma emphasises COP26 in Glasgow is now the ‘last best chance’ to contain global warming to around 1.5 degrees and to avert catastrophic climate changes.

I also listened to the excellent New Economics Foundation Weekly Economics Podcast, in which Tessa Khan, international climate change and human rights lawyer, talks about her latest campaign, Stop Cambo. Cambo is a huge oil field just off the Shetland Islands. It contains, probably, over 800m barrels of oil and is one of the largest undeveloped oil fields on the UK continental shelf. And the UK government is about to approve permits to start extracting that oil, starting as soon as 2022 and continuing to 2050. The greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted would be equivalent to operating 16-18 coal fired power stations for a year.

If you find these two paragraphs shockingly contradictory, you’re not alone. Even the International Energy Agency not, frankly, known for its leading-edge green credentials, says that to meet the 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement, there can be no more development of oil, gas or coal projects. And yet the government claims that Cambo doesn’t count, since this development, licenced 10 years ago, has already been accounted for in future projections.

Not good enough. This kind of obfuscation undermines the UK’s COP26 leadership and hopes that the UK can exercise climate leadership on the global stage.

It’s not news that greenhouse gas emissions are rising. What is however starkly outlined in the IPCC report are the impacts of shorter-lived greenhouse gases, especially methane. Over half of total global emissions come from human activities, and 40% of those come from agriculture, 35% from fossil fuels, and 20% from waste.

The elephant in the room is, of course, a cow. A third of these agriculture methane emissions come from livestock, so naturally it is the first thing people tend to think of when discussing methane in agriculture. But does this report add (fossil) fuel to the fire around ruminant agriculture?

It is undeniable that the way food is produced needs to change, and fast. Multiple reports (most recently Tim Lang’s detailed work, Henry Dimbleby’s comprehensive National Food Strategy, the UN Food Systems Summit, and our own findings) make it clear – the food system needs root and branch reform. But how?

Some are suggesting that, to reduce the food system’s impact on climate, we need yet more industrialised, intensified and commodified solutions. These calls are, too often, blind to their costly social and environmental impacts. As serious and as urgent as it is, climate breakdown is not the only crisis we face. We are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis, a public health crisis and an economic crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic, but rooted in a fundamentally inequitable global economy. It is critical that the actions we take right now both take responsibility for climate impacts AND restore nature, improve people’s health, and set a pathway for a just transition to a more sustainable future.

From land use to production systems to waste, there are significant - and importantly fair - changes the UK can make right now that meet these multiple challenges head on. A comprehensive and inclusive pathway towards agroecological farming systems - a Nature-based Solution to the climate crisis - sets us on the right course.

On land use, we must protect intact ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes. In the UK, we must restore peatlands and grasslands. We can also adopt regenerative practices across the farmed landscape, keeping carbon in the soil through no-till cultivation, planting trees and hedgerows to both sequester carbon and improve habitats. Agroforestry and silvopasture integrate trees into food production, with all the social and environmental co-benefits this provides.

On production systems, we must de-industrialise global farming. ‘Efficiencies’ in farming have obscured the real cost of production. From water and air quality to ecosystem destruction, from poverty to diet-related illness, the drive for ever cheaper food has externalised its true cost, to tax payers and to future generations. The use of pesticides and herbicides has had a catastrophic effect on nature; and the overuse of anti-biotics is leading to anti-microbial resistance, identified (by UK Government, WEF and WHO) as one of the top 10 global threats facing humanity. And, significantly, industrial farming increases inequality, which in turn incubates instability. A global food system which is increasingly financialised, commodified and consolidated into fewer hands disadvantages and disenfranchises small holder and indigenous farmers, especially in countries most vulnerable to climate shocks.

On waste, industrialised food systems account for huge amounts of food waste, from field to fork. If ‘food waste’ was a country, it would rank third in the world for GHG emissions. Waste happens throughout the industrialised food supply chain, from the fruit and vegetables lost in production and transportation, to retailers declining imperfect produce, to what we throw away from the fridge. Ultra-processing and excess packaging also contribute to this huge waste problem.

And finally, on meat - which brings us back to the cow in the room - intensive and industrialised red meat production has to transition to agroecological farming systems, in which ruminant livestock play a key role in soil fertility, carbon sequestration and habitat restoration. Properly targeted global policies, public investment and private finance can help to:

  • Speed a transition away from industrially produced red meat, in intensive feed lots.
  • Stop feeding grain to ruminants, returning the land used for producing animal feeds to regenerative and mixed farming systems and horticulture.
  • Keep cows outside for as long as possible, in managed grazing systems, minimising slurry production.
  • Reduce enteric fermentation through dietary additives and herd improvements.

In Western countries, policies and incentives that support eating less and better meat, and more and better fruit and veg, all produced from sustainable sources, are amongst the easiest actions we can take, to respond to the climate crisis, as well as the nature crisis and the public health crisis.

Now, with three months to go to COP26, governments must take their leadership seriously and commit to concrete, plausible and fair actions in this, our ‘last best chance’ to avert climate catastrophe.

Rising to this challenge, the indomitable Christiana Figueres (architect of the Paris Agreement) has suggested that Costa Rica will announce a ban on the exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels. In her words, “… just because Costa Rica is tiny, it doesn’t mean we don’t have a voice”.

In the context of the IPCC’s assessment, this bold, practical and serious commitment to action is exactly what climate leadership should look like.