Transformational change in land use is needed to fight climate change

Vicki Hird is Farm Campaign Coordinator at Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming. She tweets at @vickihird

This article was originally published in SERA's magazine New Ground

The oceans are heating up and our weather is becoming more erratic. The climate breakdown is revealing itself. Without doubt, climate change will seriously threaten global food security in a variety of ways, impacting productivity, compromising global nutrition and harming livelihoods. But the very nature of those food systems is also severely undermining our ability to tackle the breakdown. New institutional and political interest needs to get the UK into a new era of low carbon food systfems. The recent report by the Climate change Committee sheds useful light on the transformational changes needed to ensure land becomes a more effective carbon store but also how water, healthy soils, wildlife, timber and food, are all at risk from a warming climate. But it is clear from this report that the conflicting demands on land to deliver multiple purposes – from carbon storage to food production and new homes – means a strong political steer is needed to avoid huge, unintended consequences. And that we need to change behaviour.

The CCC report starts to correct the neglect given to the significant greenhouse gas emissions from the land and from our food supply when compared to transport, energy and housing emissions. A business-as-usual approach for the food system would make it impossible to meet our Paris Agreement goal to limit temperatures rises to 1.5oC. 10 percent of our UK emissions are from agriculture activities alone – from carbon dioxide released as soil is disturbed to methane emissions from livestock. Then add the considerable emissions involved in our food consumption, often incurred overseas.

But do politicians understand enough about the climate connection with land? Not only in terms of emissions but also how we need to manage the changes wisely for nutritional security, environmental protection and to ensure viable farm rural economies and jobs. Climate change will dramatically affect our farming but also our food and feed imports which are currently around 40 percent. A climate change committee report on coastal risks highlights agricultural land already at risk of coastal flooding. Add all the other climate risks to all UK production and then combine it with the damage to food and fisheries production around the globe...We are facing some scary gaps in supply.

There are signs of hope and some major blockages to effective action on all this. Government commitments, institutional action and new regulations are beginning to create noise over land based emissions. At the global level and, after many delays, the UNFCCC is working on agriculture and raising expectations. A new global coalition - Climate Land Ambition and Rights Alliance – is urging action but rightly making sure it is rooted in social justice and agroecology. In the UK, the Climate Change Committee has revealed that emission reductions in the agriculture sector have flatlined over the past 6 years and how steps are needed to tackle this. There has till now been too little clarity on the emissions themselves, too few policies and incentives to ensure reductions from the land based sectors and they have had other pressures to contend with. That is changing.

Incredibly there has been a fight on to include climate in the remit of the new environment watchdog that will emerge from the Environment Bill. Let’s hope the correct side wins and we see effective regulation to protect carbon storage on the land. Finally the citizen and parliamentary ‘ Net Zero’ initiatives are yielding results such that the government has asked the CCC if the UK should set a date for a net zero emissions target that will include land. The phrase even got into the Agriculture Bill second reading. But we need action now and a focus on 2050 targets is too late.

Talking of Agriculture Bills it is worth exploring how the UK transition out of Europe and the resulting shiny new farm policy will help in this task regarding farming? It is certainly an opportunity. Shadow Farm Minister David Drew recently noted at the Agriculture Bill Committee “agriculture has to play its part in dealing with climate change... farmers are already paying the price for climate change.... It is crucial to deliver the budget in a way that allows farmers to make those changes.”

The fact that the Agriculture Bill does, actually, mention climate change is a start. Much of the farming community is on board and taking steps whilst climate science denial is increasingly isolated. The Bill provides powers to give financial support for “mitigating or adapting to climate change” as well as other related areas.

The Bill could help deliver on a key ‘win win’ outcome: carbon storing nature. Restoring habitats – not only for the crucial wildlife they support and natural system they protect – but because they also secure carbon in the land will be key. Many farmers recognise enhancing soil carbon will benefit yeilds but they could go further, protect habitats and maybe reap rewards via the new Environmental Land Management Scheme. Peatlands and wetlands, semi natural forests and woodlands and well managed permanent grasslands are all needed.

Soils should be another core focus. We need a UK wide plan, with incentives, advice and training to ensure that all soils are in better condition, with growing levels of organic carbon and healthy soil biota as soon as possible. Other outcomes from new policy must be more farmers using organic farm techniques, which can enhance carbon sequestration, more agroforestry, cutting back on artificial nitrogen use – a key source of fossil fuel use and nitrous oxide emissions. We need to be phasing out any subsidies to the false solution of large scale biomass (which takes precious land and creates all sorts of environmental harm). We’ll also need the Environment Act, due after Christmas, to set baseline regulations and enforcement.

But it is not just about farming practice but about what grow or rear to eat. One final source of optimism is that we the people are starting to shift our diets to more carbon friendly ones. The highest carbon part of the nation’s diet is the meat and dairy element, with rice (a key methane source) and airfreighted foods lower but still relevant. In the UK we eat nearly two times the global average of meat and dairy. Wasting food is also an obvious waste of the emissions involved in producing it. The growth in both awareness and changing dietary habits towards reduced meat and more plants and less food waste can only be a good thing – as long as it does not destroy the livelihoods of good livestock farmers maintaining good soils in a mixed system with high animal welfare. We need to eat less and better meat. Encouragingly, the majority of British adults agree that their behaviour changes the earth’s climate and also tend to agree that if we all made changes to our diets, we could significantly reduce the impact of climate change. But polices are needed to encourage a greater shift to more sustainable, lower carbon diets.

Blocking action however are major political and structural problems. Brexit is dominant. Then there is the political reluctance to commit to budgets for supporting farmers in the transition or to bringing in measures to address behavioural changes. And whilst the Agriculture Bill contains powers to support action it contains no duties, no set budget after the next election and has a long list of priorities – will climate get a look in? This is a Bill of promises.

The food system itself beyond the farm gate though is probably the biggest barrier. Many decades of concentration in food businesses, of developing fossil fuel intensive, complex, long distance distribution chains and cheap food marketing are all hugely difficult to reverse. The farmer has never been paid less out of the pound the consumer spends. Until we have a better balance of power in the food chain and proper true costs accounting it is hard to believe public support can deliver all the transformations needed in an integrated way without unintended consequences... Climate action should not lead to greater intensification or concentration of power.

The Defra Agriculture Bill provides some solutions but it is only possibilities, buried within many other high expectations, coupled with low responsibilities and an even lower budget after 2022 unless something changes. It’s not enough. Ultimately we need to see major political ambition, involving multiple departments to deliver an unambiguous and coherent UK plan with targets and resources to cut emissions from food production and consumption. We need to support farmers in the transition.

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  • Peter Crispin
    commented 2019-09-17 09:34:01 +0100
    Can I be clear that as current demands are focused on decarbonisation by 2050 that this is totally inadequate ? The North Pole is ice free by 2040 and therefore a whole range of unparalleled and un planned “feed back loops” from Arctic methane and potentially oceanic nitrous oxides will be accelerating “Global Heating”. The ecology is clear as further signaled by coral reef bleaching that first occurred in 1997 and libraries of other evidence that we have “over shot” by over 20 years and that the notion of “Acceptable Warming ie 1.5/2C” is gravely complacent.

    To “Save the Future” by 2050 we need to not only have decarbonised but have C02 returning rapidly to 350ppm; this requires a further UN track whereby countries address their ecological and industrial debts certainly post 1992 and maybe post 1800. The notion of “climate mitigation” is clearly inadequate; we have to address the fact that CO2 need to be returned from the atmosphere. This requires a new "Ethical Foreign Policy and “upstepping” of ambition.

    The Precautionary Principle indicates that CO2 levels have to be returned to below 350ppm at which “ecological stress” indicators such as coral reef bleaching, ocean and soil acidification, polar and montane glacial ice melt was limited.

    I urge clarity.