Leo Mercer considers how to balance the requirements for providing nutritious homegrown food with raising resilience to the increasing impacts of climate change on agriculture and the needs to mitigate the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions and protect nature.

Feeding a growing population has demanded ever greater efficiency improvements from land. Remarkably, this has been achieved at the global level and sustained since the 1970s: we are now producing more food than ever before. However, balancing the imperative to produce nutritious food for growing populations while reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector remains a vexatious issue that few jurisdictions have got right. This challenge is compounded by the disruption wrought by climate change and the need to support food producers to promote nature recovery in degraded environments, develop new sources of renewable energy, and site housing and critical infrastructure.

Rightly, food producers occupy a privileged place in society. Farmers, croppers, orchardists and downstream ancillary services (processing, transport and manufacturing) of primary products grow, process and distribute the food we consume. Yet too often, the environmental challenges associated with food production are put aside to intensify and expand food production.

New evidence for effective action to facilitate the transition

A recent report from the Food Systems Economic Commission (FSEC) analyses the global costs associated with the food system. It estimates the economic costs from persistent hunger, obesity, undernutrition, environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions to amount to US$10 trillion annually, which far exceeds what the food system contributes to global GDP. Policies the report identifies to remedy these problems range from shifting consumption patterns towards healthy diets and away from the most carbon-intensive foods, to resetting subsidies and incentives to drive beneficial land management systems, pricing in externalities (i.e. methane, CO₂ and nitrous oxide emissions) and discouraging an intensive system that prioritises output through artificial inputs (insecticides/pesticides and fertiliser), investing in research to increase productivity in food systems and improve livelihoods, and expanding safety nets to keep food affordable for the poorest. In addition, it advocates support for resilient local food networks where smallholders are fairly incentivised to produce food and prioritise carbon sequestration.

These objectives are all achieved by putting people at the heart of food system transitions and ensuring that farmers (including smallholders and tenants), rural communities and consumers are included in decision-making processes and protected through progressive redistribution as this necessary transition gathers pace.

Why are food system transitions relevant to the UK?

The Royal Meteorological Society forecasts that all regions of the UK in years to come will need to respond to low water availability in the summer, increased flooding and coastal erosion, increased prevalence of pests and diseases to livestock and crops, and more frequent wildfires. There will be higher average temperatures, more weather variability, more winter rainfall, higher wind speeds and fewer winter frosts. These pressures should prompt all of us to consider whether the current food system and its policies and subsidies are fit for purpose to support a just and fair transition to more resilient and sustainable production for stakeholders within the food system.

As well as pressures to adapt to the impacts of climate change, there are imperatives to contribute to global climate mitigation and reduce other negative environmental outcomes from the food system. In the UK, the Government and devolved administrations have set binding targets for emissions reductions, with the UK committed to achieving net zero by 2050 under the 2008 Climate Change Act.

Between 1990 and 2021, the UK’s agricultural sector, making up about 70% of land area in the UK, decreased its emissions by 12%, but while rapid early gains were made over this period, emissions have been almost static over the last decade. Overall, the share of agriculture in the UK’s total emissions has risen since 1990, from 7% to just over 11% in 2022. The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) balanced pathway for the Sixth Carbon Budget (2033–2037) projects that agriculture will be responsible for 13% of the UK’s net emissions in 2030 and 20% by 2035, as other economic sectors achieve faster decarbonisation.

What policies and subsidy reforms are needed in the UK?

The UK food system is still emissions-intensive and current trajectories are misaligned with the net zero target. Thus, the exact pathway and policy mix to reduce emissions in line with the target and recommendations from interdisciplinary reports such as the FSEC remain undecided. The CCC reminds us that many objectives to reform the food system are within reach; and they are designed to balance demands across food production, climate adaptation and nature recovery. These recommendations closely align with what is recommended by the FSEC:

  • Promote low-carbon farming practices such as controlled release fertilisers, improved livestock efficiency and genetics, and better slurry management.
  • Develop voluntary and regulatory environmental incentives to promote carbon sequestration and provision of non-carbon public goods from afforestation, low-carbon practices, peat restoration and agroforestry.
  • Upskill land managers so they are equipped with the knowledge and skills to adopt new land management strategies and new sources of on-farm sequestration.
  • Resolve asymmetries between tenant farmers and landlords related to participating in agri-environmental schemes.
  • Deploy measures to encourage consumers to shift their diets and reduce food waste.
  • Invest in a robust monitoring, reporting and verification system to support land managers to understand their nutrient balance and carbon losses.

The sum of these actions would see agricultural land in the UK reduce by one-third by 2050 due to changes in demand and more efficient farming practices. In total, the CCC’s balanced pathway sees 25% of the UK land area being reforested or used for agro-forestry and energy crop production by 2050 – compared with about 15% today. Damaging practices such as peat extraction and burning would end, resulting in 80% of the UK’s peatlands being restored. The sum of these changes would see net emissions from agriculture declining by 28% to 39 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e) by 2035 and by 36% to about 35 MtCO2e by 2050 relative to 2018.

How important is subsidy reform? Brexit has enabled the UK Government to redesign agri-environmental incentives to support a food system transition. EU subsidies, namely the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), subsidised food production based largely on acreage, with top-ups for additional environmental actions. The new UK strategy is in part exemplified (in England) by the 25 Year Environment Plan and concept of ‘public money for public goods’ delivered through the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) to incentivise more nature-friendly farming practices, countryside stewardship and landscape recovery. Other UK administrations have aligned post-Brexit agri-environmental support with the ‘public money for public goods’ philosophy to varying degrees to best suit national circumstances. Agricultural subsidies have in the past incentivised unsustainable intensification and land conversion, both in the UK and globally. Reforming these subsidies to better balance food production and security with emissions reduction, nature recovery and land resilience must remain a key plank within food system transition goals.

Supporting producers in the face of significant change

The FSEC has identified the food system transition challenges and opportunities and the CCC provides a roadmap for the UK to begin addressing these. However, this transition represents a huge step change in the UK food system. There must be careful attention paid to the perspectives of food producers as this transition picks up speed. Current protests by farmers across Europe should give pause for thought when developing transition policies. Farmers have in recent weeks blockaded the streets of Berlin, Brussels, Bucharest and Paris to protest against restrictions around pesticide and fertiliser use, other environmental changes stipulated by the EU, lower cost imports and wages.

These protests highlight the main challenge of the food system transition: the imposition of more regulations and incentive changes on farmers who find it challenging to respond to these directives when commodity prices fall or the price of agricultural inputs rises (as we have seen with fuel and fertiliser prices from conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine). The authors of the FSEC paper contend that these competing interests must be handled adroitly and with generous support to those most affected, to avoid the kind of uprising we are currently seeing across Europe, especially as these are being co-opted by far-right anti-net zero political movements.

We are now in a position where change is unavoidable – questions remain over how quickly we can transition, and how we can ensure that food producers and the most vulnerable in society get the support they need.

An abridged version of this commentary was first published by Business Green on 23 February 2024.

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