Where are food and farming in the ten-point green plan?
Along with colleagues across the environmental movement, I have been anticipating Boris Johnson’s Green Speech today, where he set out a 10-point plan for how the UK will meet Net-Zero. All eyes were on the landmark new commitment to bring forward the ban on petrol and diesel car sales to 2030. But where were food and farming? If we are going to make a real commitment for a green recovery in the UK we can’t solely rely on a few press-worthy commitments. We need a 'Grow Back Better' manifesto for food, farming and land use. The food we eat and the way we produce it must be a climate priority.
If you include our overseas land-use change footprint, the food chain accounts for around 30% of the UK’s emissions. An area of Brazil the size of London is producing soy as feed for UK livestock. Back home, UK agricultural emissions have not fallen significantly since 2008.
Transform livestock farming and reduce grain-fed meat in our diets
We are all familiar with the arguments around cows and methane. A host of TV documentaries, celebrity comments and television ads including Burger King’s recent methane advert, David Attenborough’s “A Life on our Planet” film and the new “Kiss The Ground” documentary have made it near impossible to consume meat without thinking about its environmental impact.
But cattle and sheep do have an important role to play in nature-friendly farming, albeit at lower numbers.
The key to tackling the climate and nature emergencies together will be action to reduce industrial farming of pigs, poultry and cattle fed on cereals and imported soy which drive deforestation and create farm intensification pressure in the UK. If we cut grain-fed meat from our diets, we could free up 50% of cropland and phase out 80% of nitrogen fertiliser use. As our recent Fixing Nitrogen report revealed, excess nitrogen has a huge impact on our rivers and wildflowers and drives nitrous oxide emissions, a greenhouse gas more long-lived than methane.
The pandemic has also pushed public health risks right up the agenda: the antimicrobial resistance risk associated with routine antibiotic use in industrial farming is a ticking timebomb and a further argument for adopting this plan.
Turn soil from carbon source into sink
On the 5th December, it is World Soil Day 2020. It is a timely reminder of how soil health is crucial to the survival of our planet. Soils hold three times more carbon than the atmosphere and four times more than all living plants and animals combined. Yet, globally, soils are losing carbon due to poor management. Healthy soils are also key to flood and drought resilience as the climate heats up.
We were disappointed therefore to see the 10-point plan fail to include a legally binding target for soil health in the Environment Bill and a requirement for all farmers to monitor and improve their soil health as a condition of all farm support. The UK should also be matching or exceeding the EU’s targets to cut Nitrogen fertiliser use and grow organic to 25% total farmland, both key steps for regenerating our soils.
Instigate a farmer-led trees revolution
Yes, we need trees. But we need the right trees in the right places for nature and the climate, not empty targets and blanket conifer planting. So far, all tree planting targets have been missed. Farmers are the key to turning this around; they are the stewards of our land. They should be supported to lead the UK’s efforts through farm woodlands and agroforestry systems that boost farm productivity and benefit animal welfare and soil health too.
The Government’s advisors, the Climate Change Committee, have signalled the importance of Agroforestry. The Government must urgently clarify that farmers will be rewarded for planting trees or allowing natural tree regeneration in the new farm support framework.
We need joined-up thinking
Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan is a step towards greater UK credibility in hosting the COP26 Climate Summit. But a failure to address the way we produce our food still represents a big credibility gap and a missed opportunity to join up the dots between the climate, nature and health crises. To show how we can fill this gap, we have set out our own 10-point plan for food, farming and land use that is also a recipe for a resilient recovery to the pandemic.