It was hard not to hear about the special report on climate and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published last week.
This piece of work was the effort of more than 100 scientists from around the world, and is hugely important and timely. It was also widely reported on in many parts of the UK media.
Except, of course, it wasn’t. Actually only a portion of the report made the headlines – and that was focused on meat being the main cause of climate change. It is not, though it does play an important role.
We often get bombarded with statistics on meat and the environment. Livestock farming can be responsible for anything from 10% to 35% of carbon emissions, depending on which report you read. This is because different groups do their calculations in different ways. Some only calculate the gross emissions, while others report on net emissions. In addition, global averages are often reported, while national levels of carbon production vary enormously.
I read as many of the newspaper articles that covered the topic as possible and watched quite a bit of TV coverage. I observed a mixture of hostile commentary about current farming practices and very sensible counter-arguments from the NFU. In particular, I thought the NFU president, Minette Batters, was quite outstanding.
It would be totally wrong to suggest the IPCC report was incorrect, but I do think the case for the UK retaining its proud tradition for livestock farming needs to be made. I also want to suggest what I think must be achieved to support this argument.
The need for environmentally sustainable agriculture in the UK isn’t new, though great strides have been made over recent years. However, neither the Common Agricultural Policy nor our national aversion to anything agri-tech in farming have helped matters.
If we, as a nation, produce less meat, milk and eggs, we won’t stop wanting to eat them – so what happens then? We decrease our nation’s food security, import from other regions that are far from anything close to carbon neutral and have much lower standards in terms of food safety and animal welfare. In effect, we offshore our carbon problem.
Perhaps importing our beef and poultry from Brazil sounds like a good idea to some. It’ll probably be a bit cheaper, but this is a country with deep issues around deforestation, which has an enormous role in driving climate change.
At the same time, the status quo of our environmental footprint due to livestock farming isn’t acceptable either. It’s essential that we improve soil management and plant hedgerows and trees, all of which are low-tech solutions that can do enormous good in terms of acting as carbon sinks.
Then there’s the controversial role of agri-tech, from the manipulation of the cattle microbiome to reduce methane production to the use of GM or gene-edited crops to capture more carbon, and more. The question is: what will UK consumers see as the right course of action? After all, they ultimately drive what farmers produce. Equally importantly, what direction will the pending agriculture policy from our government take?
Support farmers to find the best solutions or drive the offshoring of our environmental responsibilities. If we had a referendum, I wonder what the result might be.