One of our era’s great and inconvenient truths is that global food production and the climate emergency are intimately linked. Drought, flood and other extreme weather events threaten farming ecosystems across the world. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture play a major role in global heating. We know that the default western diet, with its heavy emphasis on meat and dairy, is harming the planet. Eating habits in wealthy countries will have to change, and livestock numbers be reduced, if climate targets are to be met and vulnerable food systems saved.
At the end of the month, this message will be heard front and centre in the next round of the UN climate negotiations. At Cop28 in Dubai, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization will foreground the need to transform patterns of consumption and production if the goal of limiting temperature rises to 1.5C is to be met. The emphasis on the impact of food systems is welcome and overdue. For various reasons it has been badly neglected at previous summits.
But while the science is stark and straightforward, the politics is anything but. Agriculture is a sector where economic interests overlap with cultural traditions, national identities and sentimental attachments to the land. It was telling that when Rishi Sunak was desperately searching for green policies to oppose this autumn, he chose to invent a fictional “meat tax” proposal to suit his purposes. Mr Sunak was nakedly and disreputably seeking to create net zero dividing lines ahead of the next election. But across the west, more principled politicians than him are struggling to show leadership on fraught and sensitive terrain.
In the United States, Joe Biden has introduced new requirements to reduce methane emissions in fossil fuel industries, but they did not extend to the vast American beef industry. Last spring, the Dutch Farmer-Citizen Movement – set up in protest at government plans to reduce livestock numbers by a third – sent shock waves across Europe when it won regional elections. In Ireland, where farming makes up almost 40% of all emissions, proposals for similarly dramatic culls have been discussed behind closed doors in government, but not approved as policy. Compared with sectors such as transport and construction, the green transition in agriculture is notably underpowered.
The drift must not continue. This month, Denmark’s climate minister called for EU farmers to pay for their greenhouse gas emissions through a form of trading scheme. New Zealand will price emissions from livestock farming from 2025 – the only country in the world to have committed to do so. These are moves in the right direction, but only if combined with a generous combination of subsidies, compensation and financial incentives for farmers to diversify. Similarly, persuading western populations to eat less meat will require imaginative, innovative political leadership. Any proposed “meat tax” will provide automatic fodder for the populist right. But if revenue from new pricing mechanisms is directed towards the popular cause of animal welfare and some form of climate payment to the less well-off, the politics might begin to look different.
Changing the way we eat is an enormous cultural challenge, with huge economic implications. It cannot be done by stealth or diktat, or on the cheap. Nor can the task be swerved if sustainable farming is to flourish in the future. Governments must follow where Cop28 leads.