Sustaining the argument: How food and farming became central to the climate debate

As it celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, food and farming alliance Sustain knows the battle for a cleaner planet is only just getting started.

real bread
Among its many projects, Sustain runs Real Bread Campaign, which aims to find ways of making bread better for people, communities and the planet

“We’re finding that more and more people are getting active and forming organisations around food and sustainability, because the impact of having a very unsustainable, unhealthy food system has become increasingly apparent,” says Vicki Hird, co-founder of campaigning alliance Sustain.

“The more that people investigate issues like climate change and biodiversity loss, the clearer it becomes that we need to see a lot of changes.”

Hird has been building this activist community – specifically in the realm of food and farming – for decades. In 1999 she led a merger of her previous organisation, the farming-focused Sustainable Agriculture Food and Environment (SAFE) Alliance, with the food and diet-focused National Food Alliance, in order to create Sustain.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Sustain now operates as a membership network of around 100 non-profit organisations in the UK, spanning everything from action groups for rural conservation, organic growing and healthier eating, to research institutes investigating food poverty, GM crops and soil degradation. It also counts Royal Society bodies among its membership, including those for Public Health and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Across this very broad and varied mix of organisations, Sustain’s job is to share knowledge, support collaboration and ultimately advocate for better food and farming practices. To do this, it campaigns on a huge range of policy issues which reflects its diverse membership.

Sustain’s campaigning to date has helped to bring about greater transparency in nutrition and sustainability labelling on food and drink, the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks and more sustainable and healthy food options for schools and hospitals. Its other projects include Capital Growth, a campaign to support more people in London to grow their own food and have access to land, and Save Our Antibiotics, a campaign to stop the overuse of antibiotics in animal welfare.

Food Power, a campaign to tackle food poverty in the UK, is one of many projects run by Sustain

Taken together, these many different campaigns show the sheer complexity of achieving sustainability goals, and the need for coordinated action across an enormous span of policy areas. “It’s a huge strength for us to cover all of that complexity [within Sustain], because it means we can tackle issues in the round,” notes Hird.

“A good example is chicken production in battery, where there are numerous problems – one being animal welfare obviously, but then also the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions that come from that kind of intensive farming. There’s a whole host of implications we would want to be considered in a policy framework, and that’s what we try to do when talking to government or our members – try to find solutions that solve this in the round.”

Meat and land use: New fronts in the climate battle

Sustain’s coordinated approach also reflects the fact that food and farming have become much bigger factors in the climate change debate over the last two decades. Though the discussion is still dominated by the urgent need to find alternatives to fossil fuels as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, other issues like food systems and personal consumption habits have grown in importance, reflecting an increased understanding of their impact.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that raising livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates about 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions – the second highest source of emissions globally. And, with animal pasture accounting for 70% of the planet’s agricultural land, livestock farming has been identified as a leading cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss and water pollution.

As these environmental challenges escalate, there are signs that attitudes to food and farming are starting to shift in a significant way – from the rising popularity of veganism to the growth of the artificial meat market.

The latest annual food and drink report from supermarket chain Waitrose found that one in eight Britons are now vegetarian or vegan, while a further 21% said they had a largely vegetable-based diet that was supplemented only occasionally with meat. In other words, a third of consumers said they had either deliberately reduced the amount of meat they eat or removed it from their diet completely.

Livestock farming is the second highest source of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Credit: Dave – resting/Flickr

Food producers are increasingly catering to these changing habits. Market research group Mintel reports that as many as one in six (16%) food products launched in the UK in 2018 had a vegan/ no animal ingredients claim, doubling from just 8% in 2015. And a report published last month by global consultancy AT Kearney predicted that by 2040, up to 60% of the meat that we consume will be either synthetic meat grown in labs or plant-based alternatives.

Among her various campaigning activities, Hird is also a founder of Eating Better, an alliance of over 60 organisations accelerating action for less and better meat and dairy. She believes that the rising popularity of veganism and meat-free alternatives is due to a number of factors, from health concerns to animal welfare. She adds, though, that fears about global warming are “climbing up the list of drivers”.

Yet Hird is also cautious about the pace of change, noting that large food conglomerates remain incentivised to maximise their profits through intensive livestock processes. She also identifies a wider challenge in getting more people across the population to reduce their meat intake.

“As far back as 2006 the FAO published a report called Livestock’s Long Shadow, which identified livestock as a really big problem – but it takes a long time for people to understand the issue and make changes,” she says.

“Even now people might understand some of the issues but they don’t want to act on it because what you put in your mouth is such a personal thing. Meat is a particularly big identifier with your personality, your background and what your family eats – there’s a whole host of things associated with what you eat, so it’s not as simple as just showing the impact.”

The environmental implications of meat consumption tie into wider questions about how land is managed and used. This issue has been thrown into the spotlight recently thanks to the Land for the Many report, a new study and set of recommendations produced for the Labour Party by a group of experts including environmental campaigner and writer George Monbiot.

land for the many
The new Land for the Many report was commissioned by the Labour Party

One of the report’s core contentions is that land in Britain is owned and controlled by a tiny number of people, and that this disparity is at the heart of many of the country’s current ills – from soaring inequality and exclusion to the collapse of wildlife and ecosystems.

It proposes sweeping reforms to existing land practices, including using surplus land from the Land Registry to help community land trusts buy rural land for farming, forestry, conservation and rewilding; and the establishment of a new eco-friendly English land commission that would decide whether to make major farming and forestry decisions subject to planning permission.

Although Sustain is apolitical as a charity, Hird describes the Land for the Many report as “a very important contribution to the debate”. She notes that many of its proposals have already been put forward by Sustain itself, including opening up access to county and town estate land so that people are able to get on the farming ladder as new entrants.

“That access is really under threat because local authorities are running out of money and so are selling off land to pay for services,” says Hird. “That’s a huge lost asset if that continues to accelerate… People are starting to ask the bigger question of ultimately what is land for. It’s certainly something we’re starting to talk to our members about.”

Facing the future

Sustain’s 20th anniversary year is also a critical juncture for food and farming standards in the UK. With the latest Brexit deadline of 31st October looming, and Tory leadership favourite Boris Johnson talking up the prospect of a no-deal exit from the European Union, many of the country’s hard-won protections in food and farming appear at risk.

A no-deal outcome would mean the end of the UK’s regulatory alignment with the EU, potentially opening up the country’s food market to lower standards imposed by other nations. Among the most high profile cases is the possibility that chlorinated chicken – deemed unsafe by the EU – could be imposed on the UK market as a prerequisite of any future trade deal with the US.

“People are starting to ask the bigger question of ultimately what is land for”

Vicki Hird, Sustain

Sustain is acutely aware of such dangers and has set up a dedicated campaign to lobby the government about the need to protect standards for food, fishing and farming following Brexit. This includes working across its member organisations to develop a proposed future policy framework and to ensure that all voices are heard – especially those of smaller farmers, fishers and food producers.

“The US have made it absolutely clear that they want to access our food market and get rid of a lot of the policies which we have as a result of being in the EU – on labelling, antibiotics, hormones in beef – you name it, they want it to go, and we’re going to be such a small player when we’re not part of a big European bloc, will we be able to withstand that pressure to weaken our standards?” says Hird

“The whole industry, from the NFU (National Farmers’ Union) and all the landowners, to all Sustain members, are united in saying we need a really strong trade policy to stop the wholesale destruction of our food standards.”

Hird has been campaigning on these issues long enough to know the job is never done – particularly when politicians are able to roll back existing regulations to suit their own ends. As part of his pitch for the Tory leadership, Johnson recently said he would consider getting rid of “sin stealth taxes” such as the sugary drinks tax, a levy Sustain campaigned hard to achieve.

“It can sometimes feel as though you’re taking two steps forward and then three steps back depending on who’s in government and what they’re interested in,” says Hird. “Over 20 years as an alliance we’ve achieved some very good outcomes but inevitably it’s not enough.”

But there are reasons for optimism, too. Environmental issues have never been higher on the agenda of both the media and progressive politics, thanks in part to the attention-grabbing activism of groups like Extinction Rebellion and the global movement of schoolchildren striking against climate change.

Credit: Julia Hawkins/Flickr

Towns, cities and countries around the world are declaring a climate emergency, while influential politicians are among those backing calls for a ‘Green New Deal’ that would radically overhaul environmental policy (though Hird says such proposals currently aren’t paying enough attention to food and farming).

Furthermore, the climate crisis is feeding into bigger questions around equality, democracy and fairness. Hird notes that many of the emerging, fast-growing food companies with clear sustainability goals are the same businesses committed to treating their workers more fairly and to having a positive impact on society more broadly. She cites Riverford Organic Farmers, a vegetable box delivery company that switched to an employee ownership model last year, as one such example.

It is these types of businesses, she suggests, that can lead us to a fairer, greener future. “I think we’re seeing some businesses now really question their whole business model and whether it’s the right thing,” says Hird.

“It’s about recognising that different set of values we should be working towards, because it shouldn’t just be about profit.”

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