How eating British has enormous benefits on the environment — and a clever new idea to show us all just how much it helps

New research from scientists in Oxford and Switzerland demonstrates the vast differences in buying food that's locally produced and sensitively-farmed — and they've called for a labelling system to make it easy to tell when you're doing so. Carla Passino reports.

Climate-change figures make stark reading. According to a study published last year by the University of Oxford’s Joseph Poore and Swiss researcher Thomas Nemecek, the global food supply chain creates about 13.7 billion metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents. That represents about a quarter of all man-made greenhouse-gas emissions, with livestock the main culprit.

So it’s hardly surprising that the Committee on Climate Change’s latest report, published earlier this month, suggests that changes in eating habits, a reduction in food waste, sustained afforestation and improved farm efficiency are key to achieving net zero carbon by 2050.

But if there’s no doubt that global agriculture is a driver of climate change, it is also true that not all farms affect it in equal measure. The public can make a huge difference by switching to low-emission producers (which many British farmers are already) and by becoming what Daniel Crossley of the Food Ethics Council calls ‘better food citizens’. And Mr Poore has even suggested a handy labelling system to make it easier to help people make that choice.

Joseph Poore's suggested food label

Joseph Poore’s suggested packaging label to show the environmental impact of a food. Credit: Joseph Poore / University of Oxford

‘Farmers are on the front line of climate change’

Few people realise that British agriculture has a lower impact than other food production systems around the world. Research by Mr Poore and Dr Nemecek shows that, on average, British and European beef produces just over half the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent than the global average — their numbers show 39kg of CO2 equivalents produced per kg of beef in Europe, compared to the global average of 71kg per kg of beef.

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According to latest food sustainability index published in December by the BCFN Foundation and the Economist Intelligence Unit, British farming scores relatively well both on its impact on the atmosphere and on climate-change mitigation — although Mr Crossley points out that, overall, the UK ranks 16th out of the European Union’s 28 countries and therefore ‘mustn’t be complacent’.

In a bid to improve further, the industry is aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040 — ten years ahead of the target proposed by the Committee on Climate Change for the country as a whole.

‘Farmers are on the front line of climate change,’ says Guy Smith of the NFU. ‘They understand that if the weather becomes more volatile, it makes food production more challenging.’

‘Farming in the UK [is] good in terms of animal welfare and it’s got a very close relationship with the landscape and the countryside’

The farming sector’s net-zero strategy has three prongs: capturing carbon through farm-appropriate tree planting and land management; harnessing technology to produce food more efficiently (as an example, the Green Cow Project by Scotland’s Rural College looks at lowering cattle’s emissions through improvements in diet and breeding; and offsetting any residual impact by generating renewable energy through anaerobic digestion, biomass, wind or solar.

The fact that all this often goes unrecognised is a particular source of frustration for Phil Stocker of the National Sheep Association. ‘There is a general mood out there that a lot of our farming practices are not good. I don’t think we have been good at communicating the progress we have made and the further progress people want to make if they have support behind them.

‘I can certainly say that sheep farming in the UK is very much land-based and extensive, it’s considered good in terms of animal welfare and it’s got a very close relationship with the landscape and the countryside.’

And while British livestock does produce methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas, Mr Stocker quotes a study published last summer by a group of academics, including Oxford University’s Professor Myles Allen, which highlights the fact that methane, while a powerful greenhouse gas, is a short-lived pollutant with a very different effect on the atmosphere from carbon dioxide, which lingers long in the atmosphere and builds up over time. ‘Largely speaking, our system of beef and sheep production are based on grass and not causing that level of damage’ seen elsewhere, says Mr Stocker.

Failing to distinguish between the ecological footprint of different production systems doesn’t just harm British farmers — it could also hamper efforts to halt climate change. ‘If the UK sucks in more imports and if that food is produced with a higher carbon footprint, we will just be importing carbon,’ says Mr Smith. Instead, he urges consumers to be discriminating.

‘We want them to source their red meat locally from farmers who have well-grazed swards that act as a good carbon sink.’

‘High-impact beef creates 1,000% more emissions than low-impact beef…but the public has no way of telling them apart’

Mr Poore and Dr Nemecek make a similar point in their study. Although they say that excluding animal products from our diet would be the most transformative change to reduce emissions on a global scale, as even low-impact meat and dairy create more emissions than vegetable proteins, they also state that ‘consumers can play another important role by avoiding high-impact producers’.

The problem, explains Mr Poore, is that ‘products that look exactly the same in the shop can have dramatically different impacts on the environment’ depending on how they are made. High-impact beef, for example, creates 1,000% more emissions than low-impact beef, for example, while a single chocolate bar can range from zero to seven kilograms of CO2 — the latter the equivalent of driving a petrol-powered car for 30 miles — but the public has no way of telling them apart.

You'd have guessed it anyway, but now it's been proven: Britain's green and pleasant land is the best place to source your green and pleasant food.

You’d have guessed it anyway, but now it’s been proven: Britain’s green and pleasant land is the best place to source your green and pleasant food. Credit: Getty

For this reason, he advocates introducing mandatory environmental labels, which would enable more sustainable eating, as well as encouraging better monitoring and decision making on farms, better choices along the supply chain and more informed policymaking. British and European farmers would benefit, too. ‘The impacts of European-produced food tend to be a lot lower than global food,’ says Mr Poore. ‘A good reason to buy UK and European food if possible.’

Mr Crossley adds that we should think of ourselves not just as consumers but as ‘food citizens’, active participants that can consume well and help reshape the future of our food system. ‘If we change the food environment around us, we will be able to build on the momentum that has been created and make progress.’

‘We mustn’t let the foot off the pedal’

More generally, he continues, neither the blame game that heaps censure on a particular industry, nor the complaints of unfair treatment that inevitably follow from within that sector are at all useful in addressing the climate change emergency. He believes we should collectively make an effort not only to accelerate towards carbon neutrality but also go beyond it towards net-positive sustainability, where, ultimately, human activity has a positive impact on the environment.

A good starting point is the shift in government policy towards paying public money for public goods, which, if implemented correctly, ‘should incentivise farmers to farm with a much lower environmental impact’. (As an interesting aside, Mr Poore recommends that governments worldwide reward the achievement of specific environmental goals, rather than the adoption of prescribed farming practices, letting farmers choose whichever option is most viable for them to meet these targets, within given parameters.)

However, continues Mr Crossley, ‘this is not about farmers on their own, it’s about the whole food chain, and government recognising that we need to change from where we are. I’m encouraged by the fact that people are embracing the need for change, but I don’t think we should think the job is done. We mustn’t let the foot off the pedal.’