It’s high time food got a seat at the climate table
After Rishi Sunak rowed back on several climate commitments, Raphael Podselver from ProVeg International, a co-host of Food4Climate at COP28, examines the implications of this decision and what it means for the food industry.
By Raphaël Podselver
Last month, Rishi Sunak rowed back on a number of his government’s climate commitments, claiming he was taking a “more pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach” to net zero that doesn’t impose excessive hardships on consumers or households.
The policy changes, believed to be designed to appease voters, included delaying the ban of new petrol and diesel cars, pushing back the date for phasing out gas boilers and scrapping energy efficiency targets.
But the Prime Minister also announced that he will not be introducing policies to encourage sustainable behaviour, such as promoting plant-based diets and disincentivising meat consumption.
The can that keeps getting kicked down the road
Despite animal agriculture accounting for up to 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, policy makers too readily disregard the damaging impact of our global food system on the environment. The industrial rearing of livestock is one of the major drivers of climate change.
The industrial-scale production and processing of animal feed, such as soya and corn, requires the deforestation of huge swathes of land, while the journey from factory farm to plate pumps harmful emissions into the atmosphere. And let’s not forget the hundreds of millions of animals that suffer – both in factory farms and from habitat destruction.
Sunak’s announcement is yet another example of where the global food system and its carbon and cruelty footprint gets put on the backseat. This should be of gravest concern; the harsh reality is that we can’t achieve net zero without addressing our broken food system. Whilst environmental harm stemming from food systems has various causes, evidence suggests that even if we could eliminate all fossil fuel emissions, those from food systems alone would prevent us from reaching the 1.5°C target set out by The Paris Agreement.
Plant-based diets and protein diversification act as tools to mitigate the climate crisis. Beyond its positive environmental impact, a predominantly plant-based food system promotes better health, improved animal welfare and social justice for those disproportionately affected by climate change and food insecurity.
But this isn’t a transformation that can happen overnight; collective action is essential, and the government plays a pivotal role in encouraging a shift to more sustainable diets. The lack of importance the government has placed on this issue is therefore deeply concerning, and sends the wrong signal to consumers, businesses and industry about the role the food system plays in solving the net zero puzzle.
With Sunak’s announcement, we have missed an opportunity to set the right tone about our current food system; it is a can that keeps getting kicked down the road. It also raises questions about why we have waited so long to address the environmental consequences of the food system when the UK has implemented successful policies in the past, including the ‘sugar tax’in 2018 that reduced intake though increased prices. Similar schemes, such as Healthy Start, have encouraged the consumption of certain foods to promote health.
To incentivise the switch to plant-based diets, we need similar campaigns that make plant-based food more affordable and accessible; the government’s own climate advisors have called for caps on the cost of plant-based food for this very reason. If cost is deterring the government from introducing such policies, we ought to take a look at subsidies that help to fund industrial agriculture.
Tackling climate change through collective action
We’re running out of time to address our broken food system. According to Greenpeace, at the current rate, the agricultural industry is projected to produce 52 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, 70 percent of which will come from meat and dairy – suggesting that the problem is only set to get worse.
Not only do these figures make a good case for giving food a seat at the climate table, they also demonstrate the scale of the challenge ahead of us. Transforming our broken food system will require collective action between the diverse range of actors who can bring about system-wide change, including the government, private, public and third sector organisations and people willing and able to change what we eat in favour of more sustainable options.
Arguably, the UK is falling behind others, whereas it should be setting an example and inspiring global action. Take Germany for example, where recently, farmers have been incentivised to transition from pig farming and diversify their agricultural sector in a bid to make it more varied and sustainable. Meanwhile, meat consumption in Germany hit a record low this year.
What is perhaps most striking is the evidence that suggests that Britons are willing to change what they eat. Nationwide polling that took place after Rishi Sunak’s announcement revealed that citizens want change in the food system – 82 percent of whom said it is important we are producing food without harming the planet. Ultimately, the appetite is there, but we need more effective mechanisms to bridge the gap between our vision and reality.
What next? Looking ahead to COP28
With COP28 on the horizon, we have another chance to transform our broken food system into one that is fair, inclusive and sustainable. It will be the second year in a row that a whole day of global climate talks will be dedicated to issues around food, agriculture and water, representing a pivotal moment in bringing about a just food transition.
ProVeg International will be at COP28, putting food systems change front and centre through the Food4Climate pavilion. The pavilion, launched last year at COP27, is led by ProVeg International, World Animal Protection, Upfield and other leading global actors in the food and animal agriculture space, such as Compassion in World Farming. It represents a unique coming together of private, public and third sector organisations who are calling for a just food transition for the benefit of people, animals and the planet, and will be sounding the alarm on the need for combating climate change through shifting to more sustainable diets.
And we have already made progress. This year, ProVeg International was instrumental in getting the COP presidency to prioritise plant-based food options at the conference, where possible, for the first time ever – representing a significant shift in recognition at the UN-level of the relationship between climate change and our food system.
Sunak’s announcement will send a misguided signal about the impact food has on the environment. By actively shelving policies to encourage the shift to more sustainable diets, the government has pushed food systems change further down the green agenda, sidelining the inextricable links between industrial animal agriculture and climate change.
COP28 represents a unique moment to turn the tide and give food its well-deserved seat at the climate table. By working together, we can encourage shifts in sustainable diets, and help the world transition to a society that is less dependent on animal agriculture. Ultimately, this is what’s needed for a fairer, more sustainable environment where humans, animals and the planet can all thrive.
About the author
Raphaël Podselver is the Director of UN Affairs at ProVeg International. Advocating for food systems transformation. Unlocking the potential of alternative proteins and healthy plant-forward diets. Climate change (UNFCCC), environment (UNEP), just transition, biodiversity, nutrition, innovation, and food security are my focus areas. Sciences Po Paris, Master of European Affairs 2011.