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To fix the climate we need to talk about food

By : Eating Better
Nov 6, 2017

As this year’s international Climate Change Conference (COP23) kicks off in Bonn, Eating Better is calling on global leaders to champion action to curb emissions from the food on our plates.

Eating Better has written to Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, urging the UK to play a lead role at this month’s UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, by championing action to curb emissions in the food and farming sector. 

To date, little attention has been given to the food and agriculture sector in global climate change discussions, despite the fact that it will be impossible to meet the terms of the Paris agreement without significant reductions in food-related greenhouse gas emissions in particular from the production and consumption of meat and dairy. A third of greenhouse gas emissions are due to the food system, with meat and dairy foods typically the most GHG intensive part of our diet. They account for at least 14.5 per cent of global GHG emissions – as significant as emissions from all modes transport.

Over the next two weeks (6-17 November) diplomats and politicians from all over the world will converge on Bonn for this year’s United Nations round of climate talks. It’s the 23rd time that countries (‘parties’ in UN-speak) have come together for the annual Conference of the Parties, hence the acronym COP23. Under the Fiji Presidency, they will continue to negotiate how to enact the climate agreements made in Paris two years ago to keep the global temperature rise well below 2°C and preferably to no more than 1.5°C.


It is clear to all those who study the research that it is not possible to meet this vital target unless the role of dietary change – to reduce consumption of meat and dairy in high consuming countries - is included within policy solutions. As highlighted in the excellent recent briefing Paris compliant healthy food systems, produced by the UK’s Global Food Security Programme, agrifood is predicted to take up nearly the entire annual carbon budget for even a 2 degree temperature rise by 2050. It concludes that business-as-usual within the agri-food sector is not an option if we are to support the Paris agreement, and indeed, food security itself. If meat and dairy consumption continues to rise at its current rate, greenhouse gases from food production will increase by 80% globally by 2050, meaning that unless demand is curtailed, livestock sector emissions will increase to the point where dangerous climate change is unavoidable. Hence a new and different approach is required. Yet policy responses to galvanise this necessary transition are woefully inadequate. Apart from the voices of campaign groups from the sidelines, the main COP23 event is likely to be silent on what is a cost effective, environmentally sustainable, health benefiting solution to climate change.

In the UK there is a similar silence and policy gap. Last month saw the UK Government articulate its carbon reduction proposals in its report Clean Growth Strategy: Leading the Way to a Low Carbon Future. This sets out how every sector of the UK economy can contribute while highlighting the business opportunities. Except, once again; policy makers remain silent on the need to change diets, despite the business opportunities and public support this is already providing. Furthermore there is no acknowledgement of the Committee on Climate Change warning that we are currently off-track to meet even the relatively modest voluntary targets to reduce agricultural emissions by at least 3MtCO2e for England (and 4.5 MtCO2e for the UK) for which emissions from livestock production are a hotspot.

The strategy does rightly recognise that food and farming policy can do more for the environment and climate change, citing better soil management, low-carbon fertiliser development and tree planting as solutions. And it promises that future agricultural support (currently worth £3bn) – once the UK leaves the EU and its Common Agriculture Policy - will need to deliver better environmental outcomes, including addressing climate change more directly. But it provides no real details of how this will be achieved in practice, except promising an Agriculture Bill for early 2018, though there is a limit to what can be achieved by tinkering with production systems whilst ignoring the need to reduce overall levels of meat and dairy consumption in high consuming countries such as the UK.


For further information download:

Eating Better Policy Briefing 2016

Beyond the CAP: Policies to support better UK meat and dairy production post-Brexit




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