18 November 2020, 08:00 AM
  • Britain’s food and farming industries are key to its net zero goals, and experts say smart policies are needed to guide the transition
“Make or break moment” for UK food and farming climate goals

Around the world, food and farming industries have spent much of this year caught up in the challenges of responding to and coping with the coronavirus pandemic, so it’s no surprise if climate goals have slipped off their radars.

However, the Covid-19 crisis is also offering the industry “one last chance to stop, take stock and set a new course,” according to Helen Browning, chief executive of the Soil Association.

To this end, the Soil Association has set out a 10-point plan offering the sector a road map that responds to the climate, nature and health crises as radically and rapidly as the response to Covid-19 has been. The plans include priorities that would help to ensure food, farming and land use become a “major part of the solution, rather than the huge problem it is often perceived as”, Helen says.

Food and farming account for around a third of all greenhouse gas production, and recent research found that the sector’s action on climate change is critical: even if all other major sources of emissions were reduced, emissions from the global food system alone would exceed the Paris climate goal’s 1.5°C target.

The Soil Association’s 10 priorities include transforming livestock farming to dramatically reduce the risks of pandemics and antimicrobial resistance by cutting antibiotic use by 90%; exceeding Europe’s ambition to halve pesticide use and grow organic farming to a quarter of all farmed land by 2030; and instigating a farmer-led tree planting revolution with over 5% of farmed land under agroforestry systems by 2030.

“We know there is an appetite for change amongst citizens, farmers and many businesses, but the wrong choices by policy makers at this moment could lock us into damaging directions of travel. It’s a make or break moment,” Helen says. “We are clear where we need to get to; we just need the right government support to get us there.”

Avoiding policy “lock-ins”

The government is keen to reboot the economy following the damaging impacts of Covid-19, but Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association tells Speciality Food that this could do “tremendous damage” if it is not also targeted at resolving the climate, nature and health crises.

It’s clear too that consumers are increasingly demanding sustainable and organic food, so retailers play a key part in the sector’s climate plans. In fact, research this year by Ecovia Intelligence predicted that global organic product sales, which hit $100 billion in 2018, could surpass $150 billion within the next five years due to the way the Covid-19 outbreak is changing how consumers shop and eat.

Rob said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s climate plan would be a litmus test on the government’s commitment to a green recovery.

The government has revealed that its plan for a green industrial revolution will “mobilise £12bn of government investment to create and support up to 250,000 highly skilled green jobs in the UK, and spur over three times as much private sector investment by 2030”. The plan includes boosting offshore wind, carbon capture and electric vehicles.

Gareth Morgan, head of farming and land use policy at the Soil Association said the plan was a step forward, but its failure to address how we produce our food “is a big gap”.

“Food and farming is responsible for a large proportion of UK emissions and failing to recognise this in a climate plan is a missed opportunity to join up the dots between the current climate, nature and health crises. If we are going to make a real commitment for a green recovery in the UK, we can’t rely on a few press-worthy commitments. We need system-wide change and food and farming must be a joined-up climate priority,” Gareth said.

The industry is also expecting to see updates on the new Environmental Land Management Scheme towards the end of the month, and Rob says productivity grants for farming must align with a transition to agroecology. “We mustn’t lock farmers into systems that don’t benefit animal welfare, wildlife and the wider environment. This is a risky moment, but there is still everything to play for.”

The Soil Association’s report warns of other “lock-ins” that must be avoided, including trade agreements that lead the UK into a “race to the bottom” in food and farming standards, climate initiatives that do not work for nature and bailing out polluters.

“We need to ensure that government and industry does not lock itself into a pathway that will maintain the status quo,” explains James Woodward, sustainable farming officer at Sustain. “This includes ensuring that trade deals are based on high standards, that policies are designed in a holistic and integrated way, and that farmers are given a framework of a ‘just transition’ to deliver on agroecology,” he says.

The newly introduced Agriculture Act includes a requirement for a report to be presented to parliament focusing on the impacts that future trade deals could have on the food and farming sector. NFU president Minette Batters said it was a “landmark moment for our food and farming industry”.

Helen Browning says the entire food industry must work together to create this change. “It is widely acknowledged that this decade is crucial for humanity, and that farmers and land managers have a pivotal role to play. It’s no longer enough to have islands of good practice; all of food and farming, in its many forms, shapes and sizes, must work together to meet the challenges ahead, and be supported to do so.”

Scottish farmers call for policies to support transition

This week also saw the NFU Scotland welcome the publication of a report by the independent inquiry Farming for 1.5°C, which set out a transformation pathway for Scottish agriculture.

“What this report makes most clear is that we all need to act immediately to tackle the climate emergency,” said NFU Scotland president Andrew McCornick.

The report proposed a transformation in five phases over 25 years that would help the industry reduce emissions. “These changes collectively represent as great a change to Scottish farming within a generation as the change from horses to tractors,” the report says.

Andrew called for the Scottish government to step in with policy and support measures “as a matter of urgency”.

“If Scottish agriculture is to play its part as a solution to climate change, it needs to see a long-term commitment set out by Scottish government that encompasses all sectors across the industry,” he said. “The industry must be supported, guided by policy, and equipped with science-led advice if we are to reduce emissions while continuing to produce high-quality food and drink.”

Updated 18th November to include the government’s green industrial revolution plans and Soil Association comment.

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