Footprint Five: the September stories and statistics you might have missed

From farmers fighting back to the plummeting price of eggs, here’s David Burrows’ round-up of the news that may have escaped your attention last month

Don’t diss dairy. The health benefits of dairy products are “easy to demonstrate” and most UK consumers are “ethically comfortable” with animal products. However, it’s the climate change argument that is the livestock sector’s “Achilles heel” – and vegans have latched onto it, according to dairy farmer Liz Haines, writing in Farmers Weekly. So, how will producers fight back? A new (short and accessible) report commissioned by Kite Consulting tries to provide some answers. First, “some perspective” is needed in relation to agricultural emissions given that the big problems are methane and nitrous oxide rather than carbon dioxide. Second, farmers need to respond to the vegans – but carefully and collaboratively. “Rather than fighting and appearing to defend these accusations, the industry must adopt a much more open and transparent approach, explaining what we do, how we strive for improvement and, at times, accepting criticism where it is due.” Work has already started: the UK’s agricultural levy boards are consulting on a new “ruminant health and welfare group”. They want to offer a “more coordinated approach” to tackling sheep and cattle health and welfare, as well as a more united voice to defend the sector in the face of all the climate criticism. However, it seems Alan Clarke, chief executive at Quality Meat Scotland, didn’t get the memo about being proactive and positive: “We are increasingly being faced with a backlash of ill-informed anti-red meat propaganda,” he raged.

Plant-based promotions. Alpro is a brand that has been delighted by the dairy dissing – so much so that it hasn’t really had to make a fuss of its lower eco-impact. Indeed, on a press trip to see some of its producers last year, the “mylk” manufacturer described how it has been quietly increasing the proportion of European-grown soya in its products to 60% (the rest comes from Canada) – environmental credentials that others would certainly have put on the carton. A year on and owner Danone is chucking some marketing money at the brand to maintain momentum for milk-free and fight off some rather unsavoury stories about soya. In the latest issue of Caffeine there are a series of adverts designed to “put the record straight” on the little bean that has caused a big stir of late. “It isn’t true that soya will give you ‘man boobs’” one advert notes; and by choosing this particular brand “you definitely won’t be destroying the rainforest or using any GMO ingredients”. It apparently produces pretty good coffee too: according to Caffeine’s alt-milk tests, soya and oat are “the best for a consistently good cup”. Choosing an outright winner is almost impossible, but if pushed the publication’s experts would go for oat.

Carry on landfilling. Tough decisions were made in Holyrood last month too. After almost six months of dithering, the cabinet secretary for the environment Roseanna Cunningham opted to push back the country’s ban on landfilling biodegradable municipal waste from January 2021 to 2025. That will still put it way ahead of Westminster’s target and in line with the Committee and Climate Change’s guide for achieving net zero by 2050. However, there’s work to do. In April, a Scottish government-commissioned report showed that councils and the commercial sector were woefully unprepared for the ban – a million tonnes of waste would have nowhere to go come the start of 2021, consultants concluded. The government’s waste advisors came up with a similar figure in 2017, but ministers buried their heads in the ground. Having ignored all the warnings, Cunningham was then faced with only bad options: stick with the ban and see it sent to holes in the ground in England or shipped to incinerators overseas; or extend the deadline for enforcement. The delay means councils can breathe a sigh of relief (or at least the half that hadn’t bothered to prepare can), but not for long: the government is mulling over whether to increase landfill tax (at £91.35 per tonne, the current level is in line with England). Cunningham was quick to point the finger at local authorities – “they have not done the job we expected them to” – as she faced down criticism from opposition parties in parliament for not meeting “the most basic waste target”. Those in industry keen to find out how the 2025 deadline will now be met had their first chance to grill the cabinet secretary at the Scottish Resources Conference. However, a “diary clash” meant the minister for rural affairs and natural environment, Mairi Gougeon, had to step in (or rather sneak in to deliver her speech and then sneak out again without answering any questions).

Say what? Gougeon said very little we didn’t know. However, foodservice businesses should note she suggested that a charge on disposable cups – “one of the most damaging” single-use items – will be in place sooner rather than later. Scotland’s government also wants to go quicker than the EU’s single-use plastic directive in introducing bans for other items like cutlery. The plastic and disposable packaging lobby will continue to fight its corner, of course – which brings us to a piece by James Lee in the September/October issue of Circular (the magazine for members of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management). “We need to ensure the whole picture is looked at before any new bans, taxes or policy changes are implemented in the name of helping the environment,” Cromwell Polythene’s managing director wrote. It’s a fair point. However, Lee paints a rather obscure picture of the current situation: “The industry has worked hard to ensure every type of plastic can be recycled using technologies that need to be employed responsibly so plastics can be recycled in all cases, where feasible. When this is not possible, the energy can be recovered at an energy from waste facility.” It brought to mind a story Liz Goodwin told at a Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum last year. “I remember when I first started at Wrap in 2007. One of the first meetings I went to was with the British Plastics Federation and they told me exactly that: all plastics should be burnt,” said Goodwin, who led Wrap for 10 years. “I think if you went back to them now they would have a different story.” Maybe not.

And finally … keep an eye on eggs. The price of free-range eggs continues to fall – Defra’s latest statistics, for the second quarter of this year, show a price of 80.4p per dozen. Four years ago, it was over 84p. The price erosion can’t continue, say producers. Those from “enriched cages” by comparison are 53p per dozen currently; in 2016 they were 54.5p. However, a number of foodservice companies and food retailers have made commitments to go “cage-free” by 2025. Despite plummeting prices, few will want to swallow a 27p per dozen premium for free-range (although Sainsbury’s has just committed to sell only free-range). But here’s the rub: at the moment there isn’t a suitable alternative in place. The aim is a commercially viable system for “barn eggs” that won’t get animal rights campaigners worked up. However, a halfway house between the squish of the cages to the freedom to roam is proving hard to pin down – there’s disagreement over standards such as stocking density and enrichment for barn eggs. “The race to find a solution has produced a mess,” noted Poultry Business earlier this year.

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