Food glorious food!

4th May 2010

Food glorious food

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The impact of food consumption on the planet has long been oversimplified, creating a polarised debate on the merits, or not, of vegetarian, vegan and meat-based diets. The WWF One Planet Food programme aims radically to improve the key environmental impacts of all food that is eaten in the UK. Mark Driscoll explains.

When it comes to environmental impacts, the usual suspects have been mobility (the way we get around) and energy (the way we heat and light our buildings). However, there's an equally significant actor in the creation of greenhouse gases: food.

And here the debate seems to have become centred around the merits of a meat free diet. In the past six months alone Tesco has been slammed for suggesting on its website that people who eat vegetarian or vegan diets can reduce their carbon footprints; Lord Stern was similarly, and much more widely, criticised for comments in an interview with The Times where he'd advised people to "give up meat to save the planet", before making "a demand for behavioural change".

In fact, this isn't what Lord Stern said, as he asserted in a letter to the paper:

"I was not demanding people become vegetarians, but instead suggested that they should be aware that the more meat that they eat, the higher the emissions of greenhouse gases that are implied in their diets; it is in this sense of lower emissions that less meat is ‘better' for the planet," he said.

But unlike your average dairy cow this issue isn't black and white. Some of the science, however, is. So, let's start with that.


Ecosystems provide services upon which we depend, including: supporting (nutrient cycling, soil formation); provisioning (water, food, fibre, fishing); and regulating (climate, water purification, disease, flood). If ecosystems are in decline, then they are less able to provide the required ecosystem services. Some two thirds of our ecosystems, including our forests, oceans, rivers and lakes, are in decline. We are depleting the natural capital on which a secure and sustainable food system depends.

Food consumption is responsible for around a fifth of the UK's direct greenhouse gas emissions - and livestock is the hotspot. The UK has one per cent of the world's population but accounts for two per cent of the world food system.

Not only is energy required to produce our food (from pesticides to packaging), there's also a considerable amount of environmental impact from land use change - for instance, deforestation to grow soya to feed livestock.

When this is taken into consideration our impact is even greater, so just how big is the UK's food footprint? This was the first element of the ‘How Low Can We Go' report, published with the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) and looking at greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system and the scope to reduce them by 2050.

The study provides the most accurate inventory of greenhouse gases attributable to UK food consumption to date: the results are striking - and disturbing. Direct emissions from the UK food chain are estimated to be about 20 per cent of the UK's total consumption emissions.

However, according to the method and assumptions used in the study, including the emissions attributable to direct and indirect land use change, the proportion of UK consumption emissions attributable to food is lifted from 20 per cent to 30 per cent of all UK emissions - or from 152Mt carbon dioxide to 253Mt carbon dioxide.

The bottom line: reducing emissions from food will be key to tackling climate change.


The UK has its own legally-binding targets to reduce production emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 under the Climate Change Act. In order to make a proportional contribution to these reductions, and taking into account the fact that we need to continue to eat, WWF-UK and the FCRN suggest food-related emissions need to be cut by 70 per cent by 2050.

The second part of the report was thus to determine the feasibility of a 70 per cent cut, where in the food chain cuts could be made, and by how much. This study investigated a range of approaches to making the cuts, constructing three broad thematic scenarios.

The first was an energy-based scenario in which the focus was on (a) the decarbonisation of non-mobile processes, such as food processing, cooking and refrigeration and (b) the decarbonisation of energy used in transport. The result? Cuts of some 57 per cent by 2050. Not enough.

The second was an emissions-led scenario which centred on (a) reductions in direct GHG emissions, such as methane from cows and sheep and nitrous oxide from fertilisers and (b) improved production efficiency, including increased crop yields and improved livestock genetics. The result? Cuts of some 55 per cent by 2050. Again: not enough.

The final scenario considered (a) conservation, through waste avoidance and using wasted food to generate energy and (b) changes to consumption patterns in the UK. The result? Cuts of some 60 per cent. Getting there, but still not enough.

Some might argue that sufficient progress in the first two scenarios - decarbonisation and emissions reductions - will provide the cuts required. We infer from the study that they won't be enough. De-carbonising the nation's energy supply to the extent modelled in the decarbonisation scenario will be very difficult and expensive.

Equally, as the report notes, "reducing field nitrous oxide emissions and enteric methane emissions are particularly speculative and their full elimination may not be technically possible".

So reaching a 70 per cent reduction in GHG emissions by 2050 will require a combination of approaches. These include not only the first two scenarios - decarbonisation of the general economy, production efficiencies, reductions in waste and nitrous oxide and methane emissions abatement - but also the third scenario with changes in the type of foods we consume. In this, the ‘all themes scenario', the 70 per cent target can be reached.

Thus, the conclusion of the study's modelling is that we are highly likely to need both technological and behavioural change to achieve reductions of this magnitude - and help avoid dangerous climate change. The extent to which consumption of high impact foodstuffs (such as meat and dairy) need to be cut will depend on the extent of progress in decarbonisation of the UK energy supply, advances in technology and increased efficiency.

Meat and dairy

Attempting to change the patterns of consumption is undoubtedly the most controversial conclusion in the report. However, there is a growing body of scientific research that highlights the importance of cutting meat and dairy consumption both for environmental reasons, but also because of the potential health benefits to be gained.

The recent report in The Lancet - which attracted some brief support from Government - and the Sustainable Development Commission's ‘Setting the Table' report - are cases in point.

The latter advised the Government that "eliminating waste, cutting fatty and sugary foods and reducing meat and dairy will benefit health and environment". However, thus far there has been little movement from the Government on the issue, with its 2030 Vision document in January side-stepping a stance on consumption stating "the evidence to inform appropriate consumer choices and policy responses is currently unclear".

We find it disappointing that the Government has given the evidence on livestock product consumption so little credence and that it has parked the debate as an issue concerning ‘some groups'.

This isn't a Potemkin issue created by environmentalists; this should concern all groups. The How Low report naturally garnered some reaction from the livestock industry given its conclusions, yet we hope that the debate is becoming less polarised and more constructive. Ironically, we also received some criticism from the vegan and vegetarian lobbies, mostly on the back of a piece in The Times. The paper suggested that our study found that: "Becoming a vegetarian can do more harm to the environment than continuing to eat red meat according to a study of the impacts of meat substitutes such as tofu".

It didn't. The report does show that meat substitutes, like tofu, can use more arable land to produce them than meat. This doesn't mean, however, that tofu, "can harm the environment more than meat", given that there are many other factors at play, not least methane emissions from livestock which have a considerable impact in terms of climate change.

The impact of food consumption on the planet has long been oversimplified, creating a polarised debate on the merits, or not, of vegetarian, vegan and meat-based diets. The crucial point here is that we at WWF are advocating a balanced, sustainable diet - a diet that is balanced for health and for environmental reasons.

This diet will, given the impact of livestock on climate change, include less meat and dairy than we consume currently. However, there is no call for everyone to ‘go vegetarian' or ‘go vegan'.

Change for the future

We do however believe that we need to change the way we eat, in order to cut the greenhouse gas emissions from food consumption by at least 70 per cent by 2050, prevent the collapse of many of our most important ecosystems and avert dangerous climate change.

Indeed, our mission at WWF is to stop the degradation of the planet's natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature by conserving biodiversity, ensuring the sustainable use of resources and reducing pollution and wasteful consumption. The transition to a more sustainable food system will be central to achieving this.

That's why we created our One Planet Food programme, incorporating the whole food chain, from the production of commodities (like palm oil and soya) through processing and on to consumption and disposal. The goals of the programme are to radically improve the key environmental impacts of the food that is eaten in the UK, including our impact on the parts of the world richest in biodiversity.

We are actively talking to a number of producer organisations, retailers and government bodies as part of this programme of work. How to reduce consumption while supporting the food and farming industry is high on the agenda - we certainly aren't sweeping it under the table.

We know enough now to conclude that the UK food system contributes very substantially to the problem of climate change - in fact, more substantially than we previously thought given the emissions from land-use change. We also know enough about how the impacts arise to do something about them.

The question is: will we? The answer, if we are going to feed nine billion people by 2050, is: we have to.

As Hui Liangyu, Vice Premier of the State Council of the People's Republic of China said at the World Food Summit in November 2009: "Food security is the basis for economic development and social stability".

However, our global food systems are currently far from sustainable. Many of our fisheries are in a rapid state of decline and we are undermining many of the ecosystem services that are fundamental to our own well-being and the sustainability of our global food systems. In fact, food production accounts for 23 per cent of humanity's ecological footprint.

As such, the food system must be regarded as a major component of our efforts to reduce pressures on the natural world, and ensure a sustainable future, both environmentally and financially.

The full report is available here.


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