How Low Can We Go? calls upon policymakers “to put in place a combination of measures that change not only how we produce and consume food, but also what it is we consume”.
The report from WWF and the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) looks at the greenhouse gas emissions involved in UK food system, and the scope for reducing them by 70 per cent by 2050. That target was suggested by a 2008 FCRN report showing UK food, from field to fork, accounts for almost a fifth of all greenhouse gases generated by the goods and services we consume.
“Modifying consumption has a particularly important role to play, and consumption measures offer opportunities for reductions that could be implemented in the near future,” the WWF report says. Livestock rearing alone accounts for 57 per cent of harmful emissions from UK agriculture.
It indicates that a vegetarian diet (with dairy and eggs), a 66 per cent reduction in livestock production consumption, and technologies to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from soils and methane from ruminants, had the potential to reduce direct supply chain emissions by 15-20 per cent.
More sustainable would be an increase in the amount of cereals and vegetables we eat. Cutting UK meat consumption by 50 per cent would free up 1.6 million hectares currently used to grow crops to feed livestock – offset by the 1 million hectares required for crops for direct human consumption.
The also report indicates an additional 5-10 million of hectares of permanent grassland would be freed-up for planting or rewilding, presenting “game-changing opportunities”.
But it pointed out, too, that any change in meat consumption patterns would have to be managed carefully. Less animals would mean less animal feed, for example, freeing up arable land, but how we compensate for a diet lower in meat, eggs and dairy could also have an adverse effect in terms of emissions. A switch from beef and milk to tofu and quorn could mean we need more arable land, not less. Emissions could be reduced nine per cent with a switch from red to white meat, the report also said, but would see an increase in the import of soy meal for poultry feed.
It warned that “careful assessment” would be needed to avoid “unintended consequences”, however. If the livestock industry contracted and collapsed entirely then the UK would be dependent on low-cost exports from other countries – it might make us healthier, but the environmental problems associated with meat production would simply be shifted elsewhere.