HomeNatural environmentReaching net zero in food and farming is the next big challenge

Reaching net zero in food and farming is the next big challenge

This post is by Neil Ward, professor at the School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia. 

The contrast could not have been starker or more riven with pathos.  On a Sunday evening, five Conservative prime ministerial candidates, wrangle contortedly in a TV debate, cooling on the UK’s net zero by 2050 target, and emphasising their caveats.  The plan “mustn’t clobber people” (Penny Mordaunt), mustn’t “make life difficult for ordinary people” (Kemi Badenoch), mustn’t “harm people and businesses” (Liz Truss), mustn’t go “too hard and too fast” (Rishi Sunak).  On the Monday morning, the leadership contest is bumped from the top of the news headlines by a record-breaking 40°C heatwave and its red alert threat to infrastructure, livelihoods and life itself.

There is a lack of drive and direction
The Tory leadership contest commenced just days after the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the UK government’s independent statutory adviser on climate change, issued its latest progress report.  It highlighted how agriculture and land use are off-track and of increasing concern.  While surface transport and electricity generation are reducing emissions relatively well, the UK’s approach to agriculture and land use lacks drive and direction, with amber and red flags riddling the CCC’s report.

Emissions are falling fastest in areas where a clear technological option is favoured, and where small numbers of large technology companies can drive the transition swiftly.  The challenges facing food, farming and land use are much more complex and intractable, and do not lend themselves easily to simple technological fixes.

Agriculture and land use may account for around ten per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions but, when combined with the wider agri-food system, account for closer to a quarter.  As reductions in emissions from transport and electricity generation progress, so the agri-food system is going to loom larger as a problem hampering the UK reaching net zero in time.  The sector is entangled in our socio-technical systems and infrastructures around everyday food consumption, international trade and land use.

Rural land not only produces food, but also supports biodiversity, generates a range of other valuable ecosystem and environmental services, underpins a multibillion pound domestic leisure and tourism economy, and now also needs to shoulder an increasing share of the UK’s carbon sequestration.  In early 2020, the CCC estimated that the area of the UK’s agricultural land used for food production would need to contract by almost a quarter to accommodate more woodland, hedgerows and energy crops to ensure sufficient reduction in net emissions.

The scale of changes needed is equivalent to those from 1940 to 1970
The CCC suggests that net emissions from agriculture and land use will need to be reduced by 69 MtCO2e by 2050. Of that reduction, 7MtCO2e (ten per cent) could come from dietary change and reducing food waste, 10MtCO2e (15 per cent) could come from changing farming practices, and 47MtCO2e (68 per cent) could come from afforestation and energy crops.  The scale of the change facing food, farming and the pattern of rural land use over the next three decades is on a par with the changes experienced between 1940 and 1970.  Indeed, the length of hedgerows that need to be put back is roughly equal to the many tens of thousands of miles that were removed over that period.

The technological revolution in the British agri-food system that took place from the 1940s was not simply the result of market forces or the serendipitous emergence of new scientific and technological developments.  Changes in farming practices and land use were highly managed and orchestrated by a set of institutions bound together by clear goals and unity of purpose.  A strong central government ministry ensured financial incentives were in place to encourage the adoption of modern farming techniques.  A network of public agricultural science institutions worked closely with the private sector and an extensive advisory service to promote, advise and encourage.  What is less well known or trumpeted is that carrots were accompanied by sticks.  A strong commitment to farm modernisation and technological ‘progress’ was reinforced by a regulatory stick that put farmers under supervision orders if they did not join in the revolution and farm their land productively.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its recent Sixth Assessment, highlighted how the 2020s are the critical decade in the battle to address runaway climate change.  The UN secretary general said the report represented “code red for humanity”.  The CCC’s increasingly shrill alarm calls at the slow and complacent pace at which the net zero challenge is effecting real change in the agri-food and rural land use system ought to prompt a rethink.

Brexit has liberated the UK from the sclerotic constraints of Common Agricultural Policy reforms.  There can be no excuse for not embarking on a new revolution to bring emissions down over the next 28 years.  Our current political leaders have a long way to go to articulate a clear vision for change in food, farming and rural land use, as the years of the 2020s ominously pass by.

Neil’s book, Net Zero, Food and Farming: Climate Change and the UK Agri-Food System, is published by Routledge on 4 August 2022.

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