Last year the reality of climate change came into view more starkly than ever. The world’s top scientists warned we have less than 12 years to take action to avoid catastrophic climate change. We all lived through a sweltering global heatwave, and we learned more about the disastrous toll our actions are taking on wildlife. In 2019, governments around the world must act on those warnings.
The experts are clear that we are more than capable of preventing disaster, and of creating a fairer, safer, healthier world in the process – and they’re unequivocal that changing the way we eat and use land is vital to securing our futures.
Yet in the UK, there’s been no progress on reducing agricultural emissions since 2008 – so they still account for 10 per cent of the total.
The climate breakdown we’ve witnessed so far, coupled with rising use of pesticides on farms and a whole range of other human activities, has wiped out half of the world’s wildlife in my lifetime.
These are deep-rooted, systemic problems – there is no magic bullet. But reducing the amount and type of meat people eat could make a significant difference.
According to Oxford University research, in rich nations like the UK we need to cut consumption of beef by 90 per cent and milk by 60 per cent – replacing those calories with five times more beans and pulses than we eat now – to play our part in avoiding climate catastrophe.
Separate research by experts at the same university found the price of bacon and sausages would have to increase by 80 per cent to cover their cost to our NHS and save nearly 6,000 lives every year.
It will take a mix of education, fiscal measures, improved ways of managing manure and feed, and changes to school and workplace menus to significantly reduce people’s consumption of unsustainably farmed meat – but a tax on meat, particularly beef, needs to be debated.
Parliament should seriously consider how this could work so that the cost is offset for more sustainable meat farmers, with funding to support them through this transition. For example, the revenue could be funnelled into a health fund that makes plant-based foods less expensive and supports our NHS, and ensures that those on lower incomes can afford to eat well.
Politicians need to catch up with the public, who are already changing the way they eat. One in eight of us is now vegan or vegetarian – and a further 20 per cent are adopting a more “flexitarian” style diet, where meat isn’t at the centre of every meal.
Michael Gove’s Agriculture Bill, currently making its way through parliament, ought to be the mechanism to bring about far-reaching change for the better. But it lacks both a long-term vision and the long-term funding commitments farmers need.
This is a serious policy failure in the making. But MPs can reshape it into a radical, hopeful plan for a more resilient and wildlife-friendly countryside.
My amendment to the Bill, to introduce targets to bring down agricultural emissions year on year to lead us to net-zero carbon farming in the UK as soon as possible, is designed to pave the way. A fundamental part of that transition must be supporting farmers to move to more humane and human-scale methods of rearing animals – producing fewer, but higher quality, products.
With well-directed and long-term support (including for example from water companies and other beneficiaries of fewer chemicals in the landscape), farmers could plan for a sustainable transition to more extensive systems, mirroring the pathway to renewables in the energy sector.
To the extent that higher prices might be necessary, then welfare and minimum wage payments will also need to increase. Keeping food artificially cheap cannot be allowed to be an excuse for continued environmental destruction and poor diets.
This isn’t about forcing people to give up their favourite foods. It’s about moving to diets based on fewer, but better animal products. It’s about ensuring healthy, locally grown food is accessible to everyone. And it’s about securing a safer, better future for all of us. There is no question that we need to overhaul our food system – only of how we make it happen.