If I asked you which foods you thought had the highest carbon footprint, you might say soya imported from the Amazon, palm oil from Indonesia or beef from just about anywhere. I expect wheat grown on English lowland peat wouldn’t be high on your list. But it should be.
Our peat soils are amongst the most carbon rich on Earth. That makes them fertile and attractive for agriculture. But when drained for food production, peatlands become a major source of greenhouse gases. Cropped lowland peat emits four times more than the same area of woodland can sequester in a year.
Global food production is responsible for roughly a third of the world’s annual carbon emissions and is the main cause of habitat loss. It might surprise you to learn that most of these emissions come not from the fossil fuel energy used to power tractors or dry grain, but from how land is used. Conversion of some natural habitats for farming leads to far greater carbon emissions than others; and, just as deforesting the Amazon for soya plantations is terrible for the climate, so is continuing to cultivate drained peatlands in the UK.
Some crops on peat have a higher carbon footprint than Amazon imports
The government has recognised the need to end Amazonian deforestation. In 2020, it set out its “world leading” programme to protect the rainforests. In 2021, it reiterated that Amazonian deforestation was a top priority for the UK. That is the right approach. One of the best ways for the UK to relieve deforestation pressure in the Amazon is by not importing crops grown there, such as soya, of which over 90 per cent is fed to livestock.
But the same level of concern has not been applied here at home to England’s lowland peatlands, despite the big climate impact. For every unit of protein, peas grown on lowland peat have 13 times the carbon footprint of soya exported from the Amazon. Per calorie, English wheat grown on lowland peat has seven times the carbon footprint of Amazonian soya crops.
The Land Use Framework is the way to address high emissions
The government should address this obvious inconsistency in its forthcoming Land Use Framework. Crucially, this should estimate the scale of land use change, including on lowland peat, needed to meet legally binding climate commitments, and set out how it will support farmers to do it. Cropped lowland peat is just one per cent of the UK’s land area, but rewetting just half this area could deliver more than a fifth of the emissions reductions needed from the UK’s agriculture and land use sector to meet its 2030 Paris Agreement target. At the moment there is not enough policy in place to meet this target.
UK farmers are not getting enough support to take action to reduce emissions. Payments to reduce emissions on lowland peat currently lag far behind those offered elsewhere in the economy, such as through the UK’s Emissions Trading Scheme. This needs to change or the UK risks a growing void between its international climate aspirations and the reality at home.