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Political Print: Government plots road to nowhere on diets

The need for dietary change remains a bewildering blind spot in the government’s new net-zero strategy. Nick Hughes reports.

You wait months for the government to put some flesh onto the net-zero bone, then three critical documents totalling 700 pages land on the same morning just days before world leaders gather for the most important climate summit in history.

In the event, those of us speed-reading the reports through a food policy lens were left searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

This is perfectly understandable where a heat and buildings strategy is concerned; perhaps even for the Treasury’s own review of the economics of achieving net-zero. It’s decidedly less plausible, however, for the government’s landmark net-zero strategy.

But before we pick through the holes and decry the lack of focus on food systems as a key contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, it’s important first to recognise the historic significance of the document. Conceptually at least, it sets the UK on an irreversible path towards becoming a net-zero economy, albeit there remain huge question marks over how net-zero will actually be delivered by this and future governments.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) considers it “an achievable, affordable plan that will bring jobs, investment and wider benefits to the UK”. Indeed, it was notable how in his foreword to the strategy the prime minister bypassed the moral imperative in favour of framing net-zero as “the greatest opportunity for jobs and prosperity for our country since the industrial revolution”. In so doing – and as ever one suspects with one eye on his own legacy – Boris Johnson sought to invoke his favoured levelling up agenda while neutralising some of the arguments around the cost of net-zero currently being prosecuted by a section of his more climate-sceptic backbenchers (who conspicuously continue to avoid discussion of the costs of inaction).

Yet for all its epoch-shaping importance, the net-zero strategy is lacking in many areas. In particular, it contains a giant food systems-shaped hole.

Recent calculations published in Nature Food show that food is responsible for 34% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

When the CCC mapped a path to achieving the UK’s sixth carbon budget (up until 2035) in December last year an entire section was attributed to agriculture and land use – which together accounted for 12% of UK emissions in 2019. In the net zero strategy, these are left to fight for air time within a broader chapter on natural resources, waste and fluorinated greenhouse gases (or f-gases).

When the strategy does speak directly to the role of food and farming it does so by trotting out existing policy commitments, all of which are focused on the production side. Nature-based commitments to plant more trees and restore peatlands are aired alongside technical fixes like precision technologies, robotics, and feeding cattle additives with methane-inhibiting properties. All good, important stuff no doubt, but the sum total is far from a roadmap for decarbonising the food we eat and the land from which it is produced.

The inadequacy of the food and farming policies is just as visible to those who approach the net-zero strategy through a more holistic environmental lens. Prominent campaigner and European Climate Foundation director Joss Garmanwrote that the parts of the strategy focused on land use and agriculture were “perhaps the weakest”, adding that “unlike power, heat and transport, farming does not have a target or roadmap for cutting emissions”.

The CCC lists the lack of a plan to tackle emissions from agriculture among the document’s “strategic gaps”. 

The real glaring omission was on the ever-thorny question of dietary change. The CCC highlights how “there is less emphasis on reducing demand for high carbon activities than in the CCC’s scenarios”. Its own modelling shows that dietary change, along with food waste reduction, can deliver the greatest savings in agricultural emissions. It consequently recommends a 20% shift away from meat and dairy products by 2030, with a further 15% reduction of meat products by 2050. 

There is some evidence to suggest this might not be enough. Henry Dimbleby, in his national food strategy for England, concluded that a 30% drop in meat consumption by 2032 was necessary to put the food system on a more sustainable footing.

Yet the government ignores the advice of both of its independent advisers and sidesteps the issue entirely. Instead, we get a defiant reference to working “with the grain of consumer choice” meaning that “no one will be required to rip out their existing boiler or scrap their current car”. Eating animal protein does not receive a name-check, but readers are left in no doubt that it falls into this same category.

Not that this omission came as a shock. The UK government has long been anxious to avoid putting the onus on the public to meet emissions goals. “[…] we will, where possible, look for solutions that do not require excessively drastic behavioural change,” said Sarah Munby, permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), when quizzed on the government’s net-zero plan in January by the House of Commons public accounts committee.

When in April the UK government set in motion a law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels it pledged to do so while “maintaining people’s freedom of choice, including on their diet”.

The evidence, however, continues to suggest this approach is folly. On the same day the net-zero strategy was launched, a paper drafted by The Behavioural Insights Team (formerly the ‘nudge unit’ within the Cabinet Office and now a ‘social-purpose company’) for BEIS found its way onto the Gov.UK website. It was quickly removed but not before it had been downloaded by a handful of alert hacks and policy wonks and shared widely via social media.

The paper certainly made for interesting reading. Among its conclusions was that achieving net-zero requires “significant behavioural change” including “a significant reduction in demand for some high-carbon activities such as flying and eating ruminant meat and dairy”. It continued that “to achieve such a transformation government will need to utilise all available policy levers and intervene at multiple levels”. 

On reducing meat consumption specifically, it suggested these could include changing public procurement rules, incentivising producers to reformulate high-carbon products, and raising public awareness of the climate impact of certain foods.

Intervention on any level would constitute progress from a government intractably opposed to advocating for dietary change to meet its climate aims.

In a forthcoming white paper in response to Dimbleby’s strategy, the government says it will “help to create a food system that incentivises farmers to produce high quality, high welfare food in the most sustainable way”. It would take a brave, possibly foolhardy punter to bet on diets featuring heavily.

For all its significance, the net-zero strategy is another example of a government that, on the question of food and climate change, still wants to have its beef and eat it.