New Net Zero Strategy fails to address food system
We see three key specific food and climate needs – and potential wins - that this strategy doesn’t meet.
The government has published its strategy for how it plans to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The strategy focuses on electric vehicles, decarbonising heat and buildings as well as major spending on nuclear energy and support for energy from hydrogen, as well as a funding boost to spending on peat restoration and woodland creation.
It’s a strategy that sees technology and industrial transformations as the answer to the climate crisis and spends accordingly. But in common with many of the government’s pronouncements on a green future, it forgets people and the huge changes to a greener, healthier, fairer society which are possible if government works in partnership with people on the ground. This is particularly clear when it comes to food and the system which produces our daily meals: research shows that, globally, without addressing food systems, even if every other sector of the economy decarbonised, we cannot meet climate goals to remain below 1.5°C of warming.
We see three key specific food and climate needs – and potential wins – that this strategy doesn’t meet.
1. Reducing meat consumption
The strategy has nothing about dietary change and reduced meat consumption. It acknowledges that “ruminant livestock are the leading cause of farm emissions” but plans to reduce these emissions via improved livestock practices such as the still emerging technology of feed additives. While regenerative livestock management will lead to improved biodiversity outcomes and increased carbon in soils, the evidence is consistently showing that technology and management practices will not be enough to curb the total greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector – we need reductions in production (and consumption) as well. The strategy makes no mention of what kind of management practices it intends to support (industrial and intensive livestock production in the UK is rising at an alarming rate) and if absolute greenhouse gas emissions from livestock will also be tackled. The National Food Strategy recently recommended the government to help us cut down on our total meat consumption while the government’s own independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) recommends reduced meat consumption as the low hanging fruit in reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions – a recommendation the government has, so far, consistently chosen to ignore.
2. Halving food waste
While the strategy has a lot of fanfare around food waste, what the detail suggests is that food waste policy – never very ambitious – has been downgraded. A move to bring forward separate food waste collections for all households by 2025 is a whole two years later than a previous target to have these fully rolled out by 2023. Despite promises since 2018 of a consultation on new regulation to require business transparency and targets on food waste, the only business action on food waste mentioned in the strategy is voluntary. And it’s hugely dispiriting that the government appears to be focusing on sending food waste to AD rather than helping prevent food waste in the first place. We already know that preventing food waste saves 9 times more greenhouse gas emissions than sending it to Anaerobic Digestion, or 40 times if you plant trees on the spared farmland that would have been used to grow the food. Using land to grow food to feed digesters, not people, is terrible climate arithmetic.
3. Focus on offsetting via unproven technologies
Talking of land use takes us onto another deeply worrying aspect of this strategy: it’s focus on offsetting via unproven technologies like Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), instead of the urgent need to directly decarbonise our food system. In a week when financial institutions are getting wise about shifty sustainability credentials of BECCS, the Net Zero Strategy is still touting the supposed negative emissions of energy from biomass. What we need is reassurance that there will be genuine emissions reductions from the agriculture sector via an increase in nutritious food production from small-scale regenerative farms alongside a reduction in demand for high carbon (meat, dairy, eggs) or low nutrition foods (sugar and ingredients for processed foods). Instead, the strategy says that food mitigation measures are now all to be covered in the Food Strategy – with no legal teeth – unlike the Net Zero strategy which is pursuant to the Climate Change Act and so will have some enforceability.
And these are only three of the most glaring issues we see – other omissions include action on methane, which garners two mentions in the entire strategy, despite being a major win for preventing short-term warming. It is particularly regrettable that the government is so unwilling to engage with the issue of sustainable food at a time when the EU looks set to see off a particularly determined industry lobbying effort to try to prevent key aspects of the Farm to Fork strategy – including on sustainable diets, and on achieving EU green targets through national agricultural policy – from coming into law. The UK has consistently ignored the benefits of climate-sensitive food policy, but in doing so, we do more than miss a decarbonisation trick – we miss opportunities to make food better for us, for nature and for the climate.
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