Friday digest: Fears over farming policy flip as government “attacks” nature

Remember the good old days when Michael (Gove) and Boris (Johnson) were the darlings of the environmental NGOs? Well, they are gone and there is no coming back (yet). Liz Truss is in charge and she has got the green lobby in a rage within days of arriving at Number 10. 

The Brexit Freedoms Bill (aka the retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill) is one of the bees in their bonnet. The bill, introduced by business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg (aka the climate sceptic’s sceptic), will “end the special legal status of all retained EU law by 2023, and give the UK the opportunity to develop new laws that best fit the needs of the country and grow the economy”, the government said. But what happens to, say, habitats that have been protected by EU laws if there are no new regulations in place by the end of next year? Indeed.

Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng has said it’s the process that’s the problem. His new growth plan also stung given that it included a new licensing round for north sea oil and gas and proposals to “liberalise planning rules” (and we all know what that means and it isn’t good news for newts). There was support in the plan for offshore wind and £2.1bn to support energy efficiency measures but the move to “rapidly review” farming regulations caught everyone off-guard. 

Outside the EU the plan was to support farmers to enhance nature, protect habitats and absorb carbon. The threat of u-turning on one of the few big Brexit wins has made the likes of Jeff Knott, the RSPB’s director of policy and advocacy, “angry”. And he isn’t alone. Campaigners and their supporters (as well as the Scottish Government) rallied round to fight what’s being billed as “the biggest attack on nature in a generation”. Knott warned that the economy, our food security and our own health and wellbeing are “wholly reliant on a healthy environment”. WWF said: “There is no food security without nature.”

Calm down everyone, said new environment secretary Ranil Jayawardena on Twitter. “There have been claims about our farming and environmental policies over the last few days that are simply untrue. The environment, farming and economic growth go hand-in-hand and we are committed to our schemes that will support our farmers to produce high-quality food and enhance our natural environment.”

Labour – for once – seized on the opportunity. It’s been working hard on a ‘green prosperity plan’, according to The Observer. The likes of Greenpeace and some think tanks feel the party is onto a winner with its proposal to set up a publicly-owned clean energy company "to cut bills, create jobs and deliver energy independence". The public want action on climate, and done in the right way, this can bring big economic and social benefits too, noted IPPR executive director Carys Roberts. “Green policy is now central to Labour’s agenda – and as such the bar has been raised,” she said.

The government’s green image was falling apart before Truss, of course. Johnson’s net-zero strategy was recently ruled to be unlawful. Rees-Mogg this week launched a “rapid review” of the government’s approach to achieving net-zero. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and other global factors have “fundamentally changed the economic landscape in the UK” so the government wants to “better understand the impact of the different ways to deliver its net-zero pathway on the UK public and economy and maximise economic opportunities of the transition”. 

Research by Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis has suggested that the effects on food shortages from the Russian invasion of Ukraine “won't be as bad as we initially thought” but carbon emissions could rise. Countries have ramped up production to plug gaps in supply but the change in land use across the globe “will have a significant environmental impact, as other countries increase carbon emissions from land use change and contribute more to deforestation”, the researchers said.

In other research news, Gen Z’s in Australia have been found to have a low understanding of the link between food consumption and climate change (some 62% are “disbelieving that diet is a major contributor to climate change”, the researchers noted in a paperfor the journal MDPI Animals. The study also found that Generation Zs (born mid 90s to 2010) do not generally engage with food provenance and most do not pay attention to food labelling.

And finally to Switzerland, where voters have reportedly rejected a proposal to ban factory farming and introduce stricter rules for animal welfare. The changes would have also covered imported animals and animal products, though exactly how that would work for the trade agreements already in place was unclear. Indeed, the government recommended against the proposal, Reuters reported, saying such changes would breach trade accords, increase investment and operating costs, and increase food prices. 

Supporters of the proposals suggested the new rules would help reduce meat consumption. “We have the right to be disappointed,” said Swiss NGO Sentience Politics, which kickstarted the movement for a factory-farming ban. “The struggle continues.

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