Analysis: Land-use report proposes ‘urgent’ emissions-reduction measures

In its first ever in-depth report on UK agricultural policies, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommends far-reaching action on diets and food waste prevention. Nick Hughes reports.

Why has the CCC produced this report now? The committee says the UK’s target to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will not be met without changes in how we use our land. Land use, including agriculture, forestry and peatland, accounted for 12% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 and current policy measures fall short of realising the stated ambition, according to its analysis.

What does the report conclude? In short, it finds that emissions from UK land use can be reduced by 64% by 2050 without producing less food in the UK or increasing imports from elsewhere.

So how do we achieve this? A range of measures are put forward, including increasing tree planting, encouraging low-carbon farming practices, restoring peatlands and growing more energy crops, but of most interest to food businesses will be recommendations to reduce food waste and curb consumption of the most carbon-intensive foods.

Tell me more. Where diet is concerned the aim is to reduce consumption of high-emitting beef, lamb and dairy products by 20%. This might sound dramatic, but as the committee points out the shift is modest compared with what current government healthy eating guidelines say we should be eating and implies around a 10% reduction in cattle and sheep numbers by 2050; another modest change when set against a market-driven reduction in numbers of around 20% in the past two decades.

How does it intend we do this? A mix of policy options are set out but an easy win, according to the CCC, is for the government to immediately require all public sector catering menus to offer a fully plant-based option every day. It notes too that increasing plant-based menu options has been found to increase demand and reduce barriers to shifting to lower carbon-impact diets without restricting choice. It also wants to see a mandatory requirement for businesses to report on the emissions from the food they provide.

And on food waste? The government is urged to introduce mandatory separation of food waste for collection by 2023. Current voluntary pledges made by businesses, such as those committed to as part of the government’s Step up to the Plate pledge, should be made mandatory, while supermarkets and caterers should also increase the availability of reduced portion-size options.

How has the report been received? Stakeholders have widely welcomed the CCC’s contribution to the debate although there has inevitably been some contention over the detail, especially around diets. The NFU seized on the CCC’s finding that emissions from UK beef are half that of the global average to make the case for buying British. Indeed, the CCC makes the point itself that simply reducing the UK beef and sheep herd without a corresponding reduction in consumption would risk an increase in overall emissions as volumes are filled by less-efficient imports. NFU president Minette Batters also made the point that plant-based products do not necessarily have a lower impact on the environment. “It all depends on where and how the ingredients have been produced, the environmental pressures involved in its production, the environmental management associated with that country’s agricultural system, and the environmental resources available, as well as how far the product has travelled,” she said.

What about campaigners? The Eating Better alliance urged the committee to go even further and adopt the target of a 50% reduction in meat and dairy consumption in the UK by 2030, and for a transition to ‘better’ meat and dairy as standard. It also advocated for the scenarios to have a renewed focus on biodiversity, noting that further intensification of agriculture and a switch to chicken fed on imported feed would have serious impacts on climate, nature and health.

So what’s next? The government will be left to consider the findings. The report is timely given the reintroduction of the Agriculture Bill to Parliament this month and the imminent introduction of the Environment Bill (although one could argue the opportunity to influence these bills is fast disappearing). The committee points out that the mix of incentives and measures currently being developed by the government is likely to be in place for the next 20-30 years, during which period the UK is aiming to achieve net zero emissions. It concludes therefore that: “It is important to build in an effective approach from the outset.”

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