This post is by Jessica Sinclair-Taylor, head of policy and media at Feedback.
A recent letter, organised by Nourish Scotland and signed by a number of organisations (including Feedback) and city governments, has asked COP26 President Alok Sharma to clear some space for food system debates on the agenda at the Glasgow climate summit this year. As the letter points out, the intimate links between nature, cutting and storing carbon, and food production, are not receiving the attention they deserve.
Food systems, like nature, are starting to be discussed more seriously. A UN summit on food will take place in September or October this year, wedged in the international calendar between the UN biodiversity conference and the climate summit. In the UK, Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy is awaited and will hopefully receive a robust response from the government.
Dietary change and food waste are carbon reduction policies
But these threads have yet to connect in a way that allows rational policy discussions about the choices to be made around food, climate and nature. The urgency is obvious: the food system is the single biggest global source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, yet policies that address diets and food waste could together achieve 88 per cent of the emissions reductions that is estimated to be required from the food system to help limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
A lifecycle assessment by Feedback, in collaboration with Bangor University, found that adopting a more comprehensive definition of food waste, including waste on farms, as well as in the supply chain and households, and putting in place policies to halve this, rather than relying on voluntary business initiatives, could save 13.6 MtC02e per year in direct emissions. It could also free up three million hectares of grassland for afforestation, theoretically saving another 24 MtC02e per year (although some of this land, and the consequent emissions savings would be overseas).
Meanwhile, even under conservative estimates of how much diets could change, eating less meat and dairy will play a very important role in a decarbonised future. The Committee on Climate Change’s ‘balanced pathway’ scenario sees dietary change playing a major role in decarbonising agriculture, delivering 60 per cent of overall emissions savings from the agriculture sector. A recent systematic review of 18 studies found consistent evidence that sustainable diets reduce environmental impacts and have more positive health benefits when compared to current consumption patterns.
The second opportunity is more complex, but equally rewarding. We need land to realise many of the benefits of protecting nature, and to create space for carbon sequestration measures like reforestation. Recent research by Tim Benton points out that the protection and setting aside of land for nature, and the shift to nature-friendly farming, both depend on dietary change for their plausibility.
Heavy reliance on carbon offsetting is worrying
But we must tread carefully. Many net zero scenarios and pledges (the recent one from Morrisons for example) rely heavily on greenhouse gas removals, or offsetting. Heavy reliance on offsetting is concerning for a number of reasons, including the belief that it eases the pressure to decarbonise. But by being much more ambitious about changing demand, there will be far less need to offset: emissions will come down as food waste reductions kick in, and as production and consumption of meat and dairy are reduced.
Carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas removals are undoubtedly needed, but how these are done matters. Trees and soils, properly managed, are excellent methods of carbon sequestration. And they are a true win-win, creating habitats for wildlife, which can be integrated with healthy food production.
Feedback first argued, back in 2019, that the government should lead integrated action on food on both the supply and demand sides, as well as a more adventurous and flexible attitude to cultural and behavioural change. And public opinion may not be an insurmountable barrier. The UK’s Climate Assembly saw dietary change as ‘more realistic than other options to be able to reach net zero’, confirming the findings of a landmark 2015 study by Chatham House, across several countries, which found that citizens understand that they may need to change what they eat, but want governments to show them the way.
It’s time to break out of the food, nature and climate policy siloes. The decisions we make about what we eat, and where and how it is grown, will weigh heavily on all our futures. We cannot afford for land use decisions to become buried in decades of political gridlock like the doldrums which temporarily halted onshore wind development. This year’s climate and nature summits are a good opportunity to start to get this right.