Pigs, Poultry and Climate Change

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Duncan Williamson

In this guest blog Duncan Williamson, Head of International Policy for Compassion in World Farming, reflects on report of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change published yesterday. Duncan is a global food system expert, with specialist knowledge in sustainable diets, food and nutrition security and agricultural diversity. He is developing Compassion’s work on agricultural diversity and sustainable diets and leading its expansion into new countries.



A cohesive UK food and farming strategy is needed – now


Credit: Peter Hermes Furian

We welcome the recommendation made by the Committee on Climate Change in their report released yesterday (2nd May) for the UK to act as a leader on climate change and to reach net zero by 2050. The report highlights the need for polices to be strengthened as current ones do not go  far enough to meet existing targets let alone the more challenging ones for which it calls. The cost savings and opportunities of tackling climate change as well as the benefits for the economy, people and nature are significant. This is a triple win that needs to be delivered.

Joined up policy making across the board is needed; for example, promoting green energy whilst also offering tax breaks to the oil and gas industries and promoting fracking is contradictory. The government talks about accelerating the growth of electric vehicles whilst it is promoting rapid airport expansion.

This lack of cohesion is manifest in the UK food system. Over 10 government departments have some influence on food policy in the UK, with the food sector being the most regulated, but there is no mechanism to ensure consistency. This report recommends the UK moves to net zero whilst Defra has spoken about doubling the size of the dairy industry. These two policies are clearly incompatible. As is subsidising sugar beet production and taxing sugar.

The report highlights some of the benefits of a move towards net zero, with a clear emphasis on people’s health due to changes such as reduced air pollution, with the food system being the number one cause of air pollution, and healthier diets. Both will be delivered through changes towards sustainable food and farming systems.

We welcome the recommendation to support societal choices, that lead to a lower demand for carbon intensive activities and a shift towards healthier diets, which better reflect the Eatwell guide. Alongside behaviour change we need to foster changes in the way we farm and use our land to put much more emphasis on, for example, carbon sequestration and habitat regeneration. These scenarios involve tree and energy crop planting as well as peatland restoration. All of these actions need to be supported  by reductions in food waste all along the food chain.

These recommendations are important as they look at both production and consumption solutions to the climate challenge. If properly implemented through a food system lens we can transition to a system that not only delivers climate goals, but also healthier people, diverse incomes for farmers and good animal welfare.

There are some clear challenges ahead, not least from the agriculture sector, which must shift to alternative practices that support emissions reduction such as afforestation and peatland restoration.

The role of subsidies is highlighted as we switch towards payments for public goods. This will work in the short term but ideally as we transition to a new food system all production subsidies are phased out and payments are made that support the regeneration of ecosystems. We must use public procurement and other policies so that even people on the lowest incomes have access to healthier diets.

Whilst we welcome the switch to healthier diets, we do not support a policy which encourages people to eat more pork and poultry. There is no nutritional need to support this switch, no one in the UK is protein deficient. We agree with the need to diversify our diets however we should be encouraging people to eat more plants and plant-based protein alongside less and better meat, eggs and dairy. A switch to more pig and poultry, as suggested in the Climate Change Committee’s report, is not needed and will result in more intensive farming with serious implications. There are clear climate implications as these systems rely on feed – soy and corn – imported from the Americas. Soy is recognised as a key driver of deforestation and land use change in places like the Cerrado and the Amazon. Land use change is one of the largest contributors to climate change. Any UK move towards net zero can’t result in off shoring of emissions and an increased burden overseas.

Compassion broadly welcomes this report and its ambition.

To ensure delivery of its aims we need to:

  • Have a UK food and farming strategy that delivers joined up policy.
  • Use our position as a world leader to call for a global agreement on food, along the lines of the IPCC.
  • Support UK producers as they move towards well-managed mixed farming and free range systems and greater agricultural diversity.
  • Enable all UK citizens to have access to healthy, humane and sustainable diets, primarily from UK producers.
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