During the past few weeks the Committee on Climate Change has been seeking evidence on how the UK should reach net zero emissions of greenhouse gases as a contribution to global ambition under the Paris Agreement. Sustain and Eating Better submitted a joint response calling for changes in the food system that go beyond intensification of livestock and efficiency of production.
Very significant changes in the food system are required to achieve the desired reduction in emissions. Climate-friendly consumption would include less and better meat and much less food waste. On the production side, improving productivity and investing in more domestic and sustainable production of fruit, vegetables and pulses are critical. This could also support public health objectives, reduce nitrate and ammonia emissions, and enhance biodiversity.
Here are the main points in the submission.
Tackling consumption is essential: If we do nothing, global GHG emissions from the food system alone could take us to the full 1.5ºC target emissions allowance by 2050 for all sectors, including energy, industry and transport. Meat and livestock, particularly ruminants like cattle and sheep, are the biggest contributors to agricultural emissions. Meat products also contribute to over-consumption of saturated fat and salt in the diet in the UK. A simple shift from red meat to poultry and pork is no clear pathway to improve health or climate. Much of the meat we consume is processed and high in fat and salt; an increase in poultry and pork production would require more land to grow soy and other crops. Conversely, UK consumers are not eating enough fruit, vegetables and pulses. This mismatch is mirrored in food production. The UK horticulture sector receives the lowest agricultural subsidies and most fruit and around half of all vegetable supply in the UK is imported.
Our ‘global footprint’ needs to be considered alongside emissions generated in the UK: The main source of GHG emissions in food is in the production stage and the UK imports a substantial amount of food. We import considerable levels of meat and livestock feed and the total land use and land-use change emissions associated with those imports need to be included in consumption emissions.
Less and better meat at the centre of reducing emissions: Crucial to achieving climate goal is to reduce the high level of meat and dairy in high consuming countries such as the UK by at least 50% by 2030. When reducing emissions in food we should do it through a full view of the food system so unintended consequences are avoided. Eating ‘less’ is vital. Choosing ‘better’ for the meat and dairy that we do eat is also important, with benefits for farm animal welfare, the environment, fair resource use, health and farming livelihoods.
Technology and innovation play an essential role: Firstly, transition from current production to a healthier and sustainable food system in line with the emissions target and the government’s Eatwell Guide would require a transition to producing more fruit, vegetables and pulses and less and better meat. Secondly, improving efficiency of production and reducing waste are part of the mix. Promising technologies include small-scale machinery allowing precision fertiliser application and plant protection; multi-cropping; hydroponics. Their development should be supported by training, education and promotion to farmers, including support for transition. Thirdly, investment in land use and farming practices that can help achieve lower carbon emissions and carbon sequestration does not always involve expensive new technology. These need to be supported via new farm policy: agroforestry and sustainable woodland creation, investing in healthy soils and ecosystems, protecting and restoring peatland soils, permanent grassland restoration and tackling nitrogen use.
With a supportive policy environment, behaviour can change over time: Strong evidence now exists of the need to shift diets towards less and better meat and livestock products. Sustain’s long experience of working on large-scale dietary change (salt, sugar and sustainable fish) shows that successful behaviour change requires a systemic approach that goes beyond persuading or ‘nudging’ individuals to change their behaviour, to include government policies and practices, new and different business practices, recipe changes, and civil society initiatives working in synergy to facilitate the desired system-wide behaviour change and cultural acceptance. Recent voluntary action by companies and a public shift to meat reduction are positive signs.
A role for government policy: For too long, government food policy has been compartmentalised. Yet responsibility for a healthy, sustainable food system spans health, food standards, agriculture, the environment and the economy. A cross-departmental, food systems approach is urgently needed to normalise the route towards climate-friendly, healthy and sustainable food production and consumption. Policy action should span:
- Agricultural policy: Brexit enables us to ensure new UK farm policy supports farmers to produce food whilst delivering public benefits (‘public goods’).
- Regulation of food industry practice: mandatory standards and voluntary certification.
- Enhanced waste reduction and management: prevention first, in line with the Food Waste Hierarchy, a legal requirement since the EU Waste Framework Directive (2008): tackling retailers’ wasteful trading practices (order cancellations; cosmetic specifications to reject produce), and new legislation to re-allow catering waste for animal feed.
- Change to food environments: improved public food procurement policy (national and local) to support climate-friendly, healthy, sustainable catering and reformed Government Buying Standards. This could be supported through the UK’s Sustainable Food Cities network.
- Consumer information to promote sustainable diets: education campaigns, challenges, alignment of dietary guidelines with climate impact.
- Economic and fiscal measures: allocation of multi-annual farm support budgets to delivering GHG reduction on farm. On consumption, measures such as carbon taxes or meat taxes may be more effective than voluntary and consumer-focused measures, especially to prompt reformulation (the experience of the sugary drinks tax).
- Change to social norms and food culture: social marketing to normalise plant-based healthy diets, encouraging dietary change and waste reduction.