While any moves taken by government to combat the climate crisis are welcome, it’s disappointing that once again food and farming have been left behind.
New meaningful commitments have been made in other key sectors like energy, transport, and woodland creation, but it is not possible to reach net-zero and effectively tackle the climate crisis without addressing all sectors, including agriculture. The majority of agricultural emissions come from farming animals, which is the leading cause of methane emissions that have a powerful heating effect on the climate.
In addition to these direct emissions, animal farming is hugely inefficient, and takes up vast swathes of land for grazing and crops grown for animal feed. Transitioning away from animal farming would unlock the enormous potential of our land to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in soils and vegetation.
Dr Helen Harwatt has outlined an approach the government can take to reduce greenhouse gases from agriculture in a 2019 paper. This involves a sustained reduction in the number of farmed animals, starting with cows farmed for meat as the highest source of emissions, combined with an associated increase in plant proteins as a replacement. Current grazing pasture and cropland used to grow animal feed could be repurposed to grow crops for human consumption, and areas unsuitable for food production can be given back to nature, with further environmental benefits. The research found that this newly forested land would remove the equivalent of 12 years of carbon emissions from the entire UK economy.
A plan to encourage plant-based diets would also reduce the UK’s impact on earth systems which must be protected to prevent run-away global warming. The starkest example of this is the Amazon rainforest, where beef and animal feed production are the two leading causes of deforestation.
There are practical actions that government could take to address this issue in UK food and farming, including improved provision of plant-based options on all public sector menus and increased support for UK farmers producing plant proteins like nuts and pulses. These policies have long been called for by The Vegan Society in our Catering for Everyone and Grow Green campaigns.
The UK government has the opportunity to take the lead globally by encouraging a shift towards a plant-based food system that we desperately need. This would be a much more equitable approach to reaching net-zero and not rely on other sectors to make unrealistic cuts to compensate for a lack of action on food and farming.
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