This guest post marks a potentially exciting shift in UK food policy – following our analysis that significant changes around food and emissions will not come by business as usual, behaviour change or the market ‘self-regulation’.  We completely disagree about the use of GM crops.

By Nick Rowcliffe (Editor ENDS Report)

Cutting UK farms’ contribution to climate change could require radical ideas such as a carbon tax on food, says the Committee on Climate Change.

UK farms’ greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by 40% if we halved our meat and dairy intake, according to the government’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

Options to promote dietary change include supermarkets removing certain products, or a carbon tax on food, it says.

Others have stressed the link between diet and emissions before (ENDS Report 425, p 19), but the CCC adds weight. Its findings are in advice for the fourth UK carbon budget period 2023-27 (see pp 12-13).

“There is clear scope for emissions reduction due to changed consumption,” the report says. “This is in contrast to our previous cautious approach, where we suggested that emissions reduction from consumption change may be limited due to impacts of land-use change.”

In 2008, UK farms produced greenhouse gases equivalent to 48 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, 8% of the national total (ENDS Report 428, pp 38-42).

The government has agreed a voluntary deal with industry to cut emissions by 3MtCO2e/yr by 2020 in England. Targets for Scotland and Wales are similar.

Greater carbon-cutting ambition will be needed after 2020. Otherwise, farm emissions would account for a third of the allowed 2050 total. “This would be unsustainable given emissions from other difficult to reduce sectors,” the CCC says.

Changes to farm management practices have uncertain scope for carbon abatement beyond 2020, the committee says. It identifies extra options including “stronger policy levers” to ensure farmers take up climate-friendly farm practice, rather than the current voluntary approach.

Genetically modified crops should be considered alongside other long-term approaches to reducing farm emissions.

Dietary advice

Perhaps the most controversial recommendation is the committee’s advice on diet. The previous government was reluctant to take on the issue and this is unlikely to have changed (ENDS Report 420, pp 40-42).

Cows require 16 kilograms and sheep 28kg of feed to produce 1kg of meat. Pigs and chicken need just 4kg and 3kg respectively, the CCC points out.

It asked Cranfield University to look at the carbon and land-use impacts of diet  change under three scenarios: a 50% cut in consumption of animal products, balanced by more plant-based food; a switch from red to white meat; or a 50% cut in white meat.

All result in substantial carbon cuts. Halving animal product consumption would yield the biggest savings, equal to 13MtCO2e or 40% of the current total.

“UK consumers are, on average, not consuming diets in line with dietary targets and guidelines,” the report notes. Reductions in food over consumption and food waste could also yield useful carbon cuts.

The two scenarios that involve a cut in the quantity of red meat and dairy would see UK agricultural land requirements fall by half. Overseas land requirements would fall by up to a quarter.

Of the 7.3 million hectares of freed-up land in the UK, 2.7Mha has at least some arable potential and could be used to grow crops. The remaining 4.6Mha could be used to rear remaining livestock more extensively or converted to forestry, the committee says.

A carbon tax on food would be one option to encourage dietary change. “This would reflect the relative carbon content of different products and therefore provide a strong signal about full costs,” the CCC says. Levies on imported produce could avoid emissions leakage, it suggests.

With a carbon price of £70 per tonne of CO2e in 2030, sheep meat and beef would cost 15% more, an extra £1 per kilogram. Bread and potatoes would cost an extra few pence per kilogram.

This artcile was reporoduced with permission of the ENDS Report. The UKs leading journal and wesbite for environmental business and policy. See more here.