What we could do to gear food to Net Zero

What we could do to gear food to Net Zero

Field Notes

What we could do to gear food to Net Zero

Professor Tim Lang

Thursday 17th November 2022

The data have been clear for years that rich societies should reduce the carbon footprint of their food systems. Now the French economist Lucas Chancel produced his study of inequalities in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions not just between but within societies. Published just before COP27, Chancel looked at emissions from 1990-2019 and explored whether socio-economic status was a factor. It was. It should be required reading in Whitehall.

In 2019 the poorest 50% of the global population emitted a mere 12% of world GHG emissions while the top 10% emitted 48%. Chancel summarised the situation thus: “Since 1990, the bottom 50% of the world population has been responsible for only 16% of all emissions growth, whereas the top 1% has been responsible for 23% of the total. While per-capita emissions of the global top 1% increased since 1990, emissions from low- and middle-income groups within rich countries declined. Contrary to the situation in 1990, 63% of the global inequality in individual emissions is now due to a gap between low and high emitters within countries rather than between countries.”

One doesn’t often get such a stark summary of how economic divisions cut across the policy discourse about the pursuit of Net Zero. Or, to put it differently, there’s not a chance of achieving Net Zero unless the class nature of causation is woven into net zero strategies at all levels. As we have seen on display at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh,high-income countries are working hard to contain calls by poor countries that there should be reparation for past damage. It’s sobering to see former imperial countries deny all colonial wealth transfer. There’s more recognition of the validity of creating new ‘sinking’ funds to help at-risk countries to adapt to coming crises such as rising sea levels or accelerating weather volatility. Defensiveness by the rich doesn’t help.

Last week, I was asked to appear before the British Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Green New Deal. It’s inquiring about what should be done to meet Net Zero, and the role of agri-food. I made five points.

Firstly, nothing will change until the UK state recognizes that food is a huge emitter of CO2e. The silence about food’s role in Net Zero means the UK is a ghost at gatherings which should be charting real change, such as the G20 or advisory bodies such as the OECD. Seeing how the issue is ducked, we need to rethink how to get Governments. Is the only way to embarrass them into admitting the truth? At COP27, there is only a food ‘pavilion’ outside the main meeting – fine words but little hard negotiating or leverage. We’re done for unless food is at the main table.

Some British people argue that it doesn’t matter what the UK does as it’s a small country. Not true. It’s in the rich bloc of Chancel’s study. The UK’s total food system emissions were 158 Mt CO2e in 2019. This is an average of 6.5 kg CO2e per capita per day. Whichever way we look at the data, land-based i.e. farming emissions are a big part of this picture but off-land emissions are considerable too. ‘It’s a food system, stupid’ President Clinton might have said. We need to reduce this systems-wide impact rapidly. And dietary change has potential to do this relatively quickly, particularly through reduced meat and dairy consumption. Easily said; not even tried yet. That’s a priority. Set up a taskforce or ask a new National Food Council to do it in 6 months. Pretend there’s a war on. (There is.)

Secondly, we need a wider, clear set of goals to reset the food system. England within the UK is vacillating about what replaces its EU farm subsidy system six years after leaving the EU. The proposed Environmental Land Management schemes are, if we’re honest, thin gruel compared to the scale of what we ought to be doing. For example, the UK could be working with other European countries to rein in the actions of the 20 giant livestock companies who internationally are responsible for more GHGs than the UK or Germany or France. An isolated UK is weak. Concerted action with neighbours gives more clout.

Thirdly, to help the public change diet, we must activate mechanisms for mass change. It would be done in a war or national emergency. (There is one.) It’s no longer sufficient, as the Committee on Climate Change keeps saying, to urge a reduction in meat and dairy unless we also raise fruit and veg production, while repurposing land for nature and carbon sequestration. We need to engage farmers and growers by addressing their livelihoods. We also should go upstream and contain off-land determinants which distort national diets generally. The challenge is how to do this, no longer whether to do it. Why not tax the ad spend on HFSS foods, for example? I keep arguing that as we don’t even have simple omni-labelling (which fuses nutrition, environmental and social criteria for judging foods), we have no alternative but to climb up the Nuffield Ladder of intervention. Get tougher. More public leadership about private commercial sectors. I’ve had enough of ‘let’s sort out public catering’ recommendations in worthy reports. It’s tiny. We should be targeting the big wealthy firms. Put more controls on marketing. More guidance for out-of-home food offers. More taxation. More use of fiscal and legal measures to remove the worst emitters in supply chains. It is time we legislated a food equivalent of the ‘polluter pays’ principle.  Food systems need a new ‘turn off the tap’ principle to stop the continuing, nay accelerating avalanche of ultra-processed foods.

Fourthly, much as the public health crises of the mid to late 19th century necessitated new powers for local authorities to tackle food, water, energy and housing deficiencies, so in the 21st century we need a reset of the purpose of local government to support mass food systems change where people live and work. The Local Government Acts are constantly being revised. Food must be key in the next round. Consider the inspiring work done by Gateshead Metropolitan Borough in North East England which used planning powers to contain excessive fast food outlets. We need to ask Gateshead, given its successes, what would help it move from containing undesirable behaviour to delivering desirable change i.e. sustainable diets from sustainable food systems locally.

We need to ensure there are shared processes between different levels of governance – local, regional, city and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments too. Many people agree the UK needs a new National Food Council to advise and hold Government to account. A first step for local food democracy would be to get a grip of the existing patchy local Resilience Forums. They mostly underplay the importance of and case for food crisis and defence planning.  Public engagement would be helped if the advice already given by processes and experiments such as Parliament’s 2020 Climate Assembly and the many local Climate Assemblies, let alone the many local actions and civil society programmes. It should give purpose to the new National Preparedness Commission which almost no-one is aware of or knows quite what it does.

Finally, the APPG MPs asked me what single thing did I think would help food deliver the Net Zero goal. My answer was that in the perhaps two years before the next UK election, we would benefit from drafting legal powers needed for a new Food Act – let’s call it a Food Security and Resilience Act. This should not just set clear, binding targets for what is required of the 21st century UK agri-food system, much as the Climate Act 2008 clarified carbon goals. It should also create an institutional structure that binds together existing and new roles to deliver the transition. At the local level, Environmental Health, Trading Standards and schools should help reset the purpose of the Food Standards Agency, the Environment Agency and the still new UK Health Security Agency. If these bodies don’t help drive Net Zero linking human and ecosystems health, what are they for? My ‘turn off the tap’ principle could certainly be applied to sewage entering rivers!

But unless we frame the food transition in the realities of gross socio-economic inequalities within and between countries, the policy hot air will blend with the already excessive carbon emissions. It’s as stark as that.

Tim Lang is Emeritus Professor of Food Policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London, and a Special Adviser to the Food Research Collaboration.

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