Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems

Could livestock Cop it in Glasgow?

It is time for definitive action to limit greenhouse gas emissions relating to our diets, says Professor Dominic Moran.

At a pre-COP15 conference dinner in Copenhagen’s Bella Centre in 2009, participants were served generous portions of beef steak. A forgettable vegetarian alternative ran out quickly, and few delegates seemed overly concerned about linking what was – or wasn’t – on their plates with the broader climate change agenda.

Scroll forward to 2021, and it is unthinkable that such a faux pas could be part of any catering option available as part of November’s COP26 jamboree in Glasgow. Delegates and attendees will more likely sample a cornucopia of sustainable alternatives including ersatz meat from cell cultured or plant-based sources, provided by innovative companies that didn’t exist in 2009.

We have come a long way in our understanding of how our diets contribute to global emissions and of the significant role of meat and livestock in particular. But knowing and doing are different things. Despite the growth of an alternative meat niche market, we have yet to move the dial significantly on agriculture and food emissions. The heat is being turned up on everyone, while agriculture and food are still going under the regulatory radar.

Decarbonising decisions

So what is to be done about this ever more conspicuous problem that is estimated to constitute around 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions? As a conversation starter, I’ll summarise the challenge with an arbitrary choice of two words that will turn out to overlap in their significance. 

The first is transformation, as in how are we going to transform food systems to decarbonise or otherwise reach net zero? The sector is lagging way behind other major polluting sectors, and all supply chain stakeholders need to figure out ways to reduce or otherwise internalise the cost of carbon quickly. Nobody is keen on new taxes and if consumers won’t pay, then producers must. So how will this happen, either voluntarily or in some mandatory way?

There is a clear role for both government and the market to develop innovative ways to implement taxes, credits or emissions trading, and this needs to happen quickly. Before anyone screams, remember that tax or credit revenues can be in effect hypothecated, or otherwise recycled back to the sector, as a potential way to address the issue of unfairness.

The second word is editing, which can mean two things in this context. The first is in relation to innovative use of new technologies to minimise the harmful effects of production.

Gene editing in particular is potentially waiting in the wings as part of the solution to sustainable livestock production. But what does the public conversation on this technology look like, in particular when we weigh up the different benefits and costs claimed for the technology, including its scope for solving an existential crisis like climate change? Arguably, this conversation and any implicit ethical weighting of the costs and benefits has yet to happen.

The second edit relates to consumer choice. Food production and consumption involve choices. Food, sleep and water may be essentials according to theory such as Maslove’s needs hierarchy, but the foods we choose need not cost the earth.

Consumer choices

If producers won’t budge and governments are too afraid of the T words – technology and taxes –  then consumers still have choices and retailers can help them edit these or otherwise nudge them in a pro-social direction. Moreover, it’s becoming a moral imperative that these key supply chain actors recognise this responsibility and step up to the plate on the issue. Continuing to defer to the sovereignty of consumer decisions that are killing us all is beginning to look like a poor marketing strategy.  

In short, we need to get serious on food emissions. The time for joking about cattle flatulence is over. So too should be the sector’s agitprop on exceptionalism and scaremongering on exporting the problem to non-complying countries – a border carbon adjustment tax will deal with that. The science and solutions are clear and the sector’s social licence to operate is under scrutiny. Copping out is not an option.  

Related links

Maslove’s needs hierarchy

COP26

BBC Online: Six things the UK could do to tackle climate change

UK Government Net Zero strategy: Build Back Greener

Image credit: AbsolutVision on Unsplash