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Betting the farm

Betting the farm

The UK government’s food strategy was an opportunity to cut emissions, rewild the country and rebalance diets away from meat. But the document that arrived this week puts tech fixes ahead of transformational change.

We don’t always learn from our experiences and sometimes it’s worse than that. We learn the wrong lesson.

The idea that every crisis we face has a technological fix might be one of the least useful lessons we could learn from the pandemic. Vaccines saved us, it’s true, but they did so in combination with swift and effective surveillance and compliance with public health measures.

Tech addiction. The idea that a tech ‘silver bullet’ will save us is in evidence again this week as the UK government finally publishes its food strategy:

  • Giant greenhouses will grow salad, apparently powered by a hefty dose of wishful thinking about energy prices.
  • Cows will no longer belch methane thanks to an additive in their feed.

The same reliance on grand tech fixes could be seen in the government’s energy strategy: the UK will build a new nuclear plant every year, but has much less ambition when it comes to insulating homes. 

Tech addiction becomes a problem when it’s the only tool you can reach for. The research linking intensive meat production to emissions is clear and it isn’t just burping cows but all along the supply chain, from the deforestation of the tropics to grow soy for animal feed to transporting steaks in refrigerated trucks. In the US beef makes up 4 per cent of the food supply by weight – but 36 per cent of diet-related greenhouse gas emissions

Food emissions. When it comes to curbing supply chain emissions, it’s hard even to gauge how UK food producers are doing. According to The Better Food Index, an analysis produced by Tortoise Intelligence…

  • half the UK’s major meat producers don’t report their ‘scope 3’ emissions, the measure of carbon released across their value chain;
  • and many of those that did report scope 3 appear to be significantly under-reporting: meat producers accounted for just 5 per cent of scope 3 emissions published by the 30 biggest UK food companies last year.

There is an alternative. We already have the technology to substitute meat. Indeed, some of the same businesses are selling alternatives to us. Moy Park, the largest meat producer in Northern Ireland, makes a variety of plant-based burgers.

But increasing choice alone won’t solve the problem. As Dr Dolly Theis, a researcher on diet at Cambridge University and policy consultant, notes: “The market is much more heavily weighted against healthy eating than most consumers even realise.” To take one example, the total value of fresh fruit and vegetables for sale in the UK is just £2.2 billion, compared with £3.9 billion for confectionery alone.

Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, which is publishing a plan for national food security tomorrow, argues there is still a place for beef, lamb and dairy in our diets provided this is grass-fed rather than grain-fed.

“We could maintain food security if we ate a little less, ate differently, and wasted less, Holden says. That means:

  • no more cheap chicken
  • the end of industrial livestock
  • and lots of fruit and vegetables in season.

“The priority will be grain going to people and not animals. At the moment a lot of protein is coming from unsustainable systems.”

Rewilding. All but ignored in the food strategy, there is plenty of scope for rewilding on UK farmland – much of which isn’t really well suited for farming. Nearly 60 per cent of agricultural output in England is produced on a third of the land.

Paying farmers on ‘low productivity land’ to protect nature and sequester carbon, which their land is suited to, makes economic and environmental sense. Yet the government is failing to give farmers the direction they need, says Dustin Benton, policy director at the thinktank Green Alliance:

  • “The part of the UK’s post-Brexit farm subsidy regime that is clearest is the part that generates least benefit for nature and is most widely applicable, the lowest common denominator. The situation is less clear for the farmers on land that has never really turned a profit and who really want to go big on nature and the sequestration of carbon. The risk is that the lowest common denominator scheme becomes what most farmers do because it is the easiest to get into.”

The pandemic reminded us of the fragility of food supply chains, and the Ukraine crisis has underlined this point. It’s no surprise that the government is prioritising food security.  Yet its approach to food neglects the importance of practical fixes – from rebalancing our diets to giving farmers clarity on the protection of nature – that would help strike a balance between the environment and keeping our dinner plates full.


Asia’s water tower
Melting of the Earth’s “Third Pole” – a region covering the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau – is set to create an imbalance in supply among the 2 billion people in surrounding nations who depend on it for fresh water. A new study in Nature has found that, as melting accelerates, the amount of liquid water north of the region will increase, while supply in the south will decrease. This will alleviate scarcity in China’s Yellow and Yangtze rivers in the short term, but also means that water in the Indus basin – 90 per cent of which is used to irrigate farms that feed the area’s huge population – will be in short supply. The cause is a change in the patterns of westerlies and the Indian monsoon that’s been brought about by global warming. The consequences, especially for geopolitics in Asia, are vast.


Biden to the gulf?
Covid began to send US petrol prices upwards in April 2020, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine has helped push it further on its way, reaching $5 per gallon on Saturday. Republicans blame the surge on President Biden, who is considering a trip to Saudi Arabia this month. It could boost relations with the oil-producing country but, as The Guardian reports, would require the leader of the free world to brush over human rights abuses, not least the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in 2018. The US is already the biggest oil producer in the world, but its capacity to create petrol from that oil has decreased in recent years. The long term solution is to get Americans out of their cars and onto public transport – but that won’t help Biden win favour in time for the midterms.


Eye in the sky
Satellite technology is fast becoming critical in identifying threats to the climate, from tracking deforestation to spotting emissions from industrial fossil fuel plants. According to a new peer-reviewed paper, the technology has enabled scientists to monitor a “17-day ultra emission event” in December 2021, during which an oil and gas platform in the Gulf of Mexico spewed 40,000 tonnes of methane into the atmosphere. It’s the first time such pollution has been tracked in this way, with the potential to make fossil fuel emissions better known. Tech will never create a silver bullet for climate change, but it can help point out how much work needs to be done.

activism and engagement

Digital delayism
A large study of social media posts over the last 18 months shows how opponents of climate action are shifting their focus from outright denial towards “discourses of delay”. These often come in the form of narratives that seek to conflate climate policy with divisive issues such as critical race theory, LGBTQ+ rights and anti-vaccine campaigns. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, who co-authored the research, also identified 13 particularly vocal subgroups and 16 “superspreaders” of climate misinformation online. Many originally came from scientific or green policy backgrounds, allowing them to present their analysis as credible. In February the IPCC took the unprecedented step of citing climate mis- and disinformation as a key barrier to action.

Thanks for reading.

Jeevan Vasagar


With thanks to the Tortoise Intelligence team for their analysis. Additional reporting by Barney Macintyre and Ellen Halliday.

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