Food and Farming now in the hot seat on Climate Change

Food & Farming and Climate Change

Yesterday’s IPCC report sets the world a clear target: we must limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels to avoid devastating impacts and tipping points for runaway climate change. This means reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by mid-century. The report is a wake-up call to governments across the globe.

More than any previous IPCC report, it is also a wake-up call for farming and for public health. Human health risks and crop yields are two of the major impact areas that become dangerously high if temperatures rise beyond 1.5 degrees.

And for the first time, both agriculture and dietary change policy are the focus of IPCC calls for ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transitions to achieve the 1.5 degrees target. As Lord Stern concluded in his response: “We must reverse the degradation of our land, soils and forests so that they are more productive and absorb more carbon dioxide”. And in the words of the IPCC, we must “limit demand for greenhouse-gas intensive foods through shifts to healthier and more sustainable diets” and “buy more local and seasonal food”.

sunset over a lake

It is not clear, from either the Agriculture Bill or the policy response to poor diet and obesity in the UK, that our own politicians have yet registered the importance of this challenge.

Just one line of the Agriculture Bill refers to the possibility of future support for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and according to a recent Committee on Climate Change report there has been no progress in cutting agricultural emissions for the last decade. The Government must now prioritise support for widespread adoption of farming methods proven to reduce emissions and store more carbon in soils, such as organic farming and agroforestry. The Agriculture Bill should also adopt a clear target requiring farming to reach net zero emissions before 2050.

On diets, it is not enough for public health policy to focus on calorie reduction without taking responsibility for making it easier for everyone to enjoy a diet that is both healthy and sustainable. A shift towards less but better meat and dairy consumption and production is urgently needed, alongside dramatic cuts to food waste and a focus on shortening supply chains. Behaviour change science shows that progress on changing diets will not come from guidelines and information. What we urgently need is radical, proactive policies from the government now to normalise healthy and sustainable choices in the food environment. The places we eat in outside the home need to step up to the mark and we are working with parents to pile the pressure on restaurants and entertainment outlets serving unhealthy food through our Out To Lunch campaign. But the government needs to stop procrastinating on obesity plans and lead the way where it has most influence: the public-sector institutions where people live out their daily lives. The Soil Association has been supporting caterers and good food champions in schools, nurseries and hospitals to achieve our Food for Life Served Here standards, which make healthier, more sustainable, high welfare and meat-free days and menus the norm. Oldham Council, Food for Life Gold-holders who prove good food is not just for posh kids, have introduced 2 meat-free days and offer vegetarian and vegan menus. Over 1.8 million meals a day and half of schools now meet our Bronze standards but we need to accelerate the pace and level of change.

The IPCC report demands a cross-Government response and we look forward to the Department of Health stepping up alongside Defra to champion and resource the urgently-needed transition to healthy and sustainable diets.

Read the Soil Association’s response to the Agriculture Bill.