Analysis: Experts have beef with Morrisons net zero meat pledge

Academics suggest ‘creative accounting’ on emissions targets could undermine efforts to fight climate crisis

Harry Cockburn
Tuesday 09 March 2021 22:58 GMT
Meat production uses around 83 per cent of the world’s farmland
Meat production uses around 83 per cent of the world’s farmland

As countries around the world race to adopt net zero emissions policies to cut greenhouse gases by the middle of the century, customer-facing businesses are rapidly presenting themselves as clean green organisations which harbour the same ambitions.

But there are growing concerns institutions and administrations may increasingly turn to opaque “carbon offsetting” techniques, in order to claim they are hitting net zero, rather than making more difficult decisions resulting in the direct emissions cuts required to tackle the climate crisis.

On Monday, UK supermarket Morrisons announced it was leading a “green farming revolution”, in which it “pledged to be the first supermarket to be completely supplied by ‘net zero’ carbon British farms by 2030”.

The company said this will mean around 3,000 British farmers will produce “net zero carbon meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables”.

The move from the UK’s 4th largest supermarket has been welcomed by campaign groups such as the WWF and will put pressure on its competitors to equal the ambition, but is it possible?

Experts in agriculture and sustainability have told The Independent that without the supermarket reducing the amount of meat it sells, hitting net zero is near impossible, and that Morrisons is presenting a model which cannot be followed by all retailers.

One of the most difficult sectors from which to totally remove greenhouse gases is agriculture, and in particular, meat production.

Ruminant animals such as sheep and cattle not only pass methane throughout their lives, a gas which is 86 to 105 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at disrupting the climate over a 20-year period, but also require supplementary food, which requires greater space and energy to produce, as well as to package and move.

Morrisons has not said it is aiming to reduce the amount of meat it sells. Instead, it will aim to make reductions in the environmental impact of the meat it does sell.

In order to do this, the company said it will look at rearing different animal breeds, using low food-mile feed supplements, using renewable energy and low emission housing and cut down fuel and fertiliser use.

The company acknowledged beef production as the most emissions-intensive aspect of agriculture, generating 45 per cent of emissions for only five per cent of products sold.

So in order to reduce methane, the company has said it will work with its beef farms to use smaller cattle breeds, pick low methane feeds, and look at methane reducing supplements such as seaweed.

While these moves will undoubtedly reduce the emissions from the production of their products, this alone will not allow the company to hit net zero.

The company’s net zero plan hinges on “offsetting”.

This is where greenhouse gas emissions produced through human activity are cancelled out by removing the gases from the air again - usually through planting trees, though there are hopes of future technological advances which will allow us to suck gases like carbon dioxide out of the air and then store it deep underground, however this is not yet available on a large scale.

Morrisons said their offsetting plans include planting grassland and clover, restoring peatland, improving soil health, planting trees and seeding hedgerows.

Dr Hannah Ritchie, an expert in environmental sustainability at the University of Oxford, told The Independent: “This will be very difficult. Given the carbon-intensity of meat and dairy, the amount of emissions to offset will still be substantial – it will require a lot of trees.

“A more fundamental issue with this strategy is that more and more companies are pleading to offset their emissions in this way. It’s just not possible that every company does this. Offsetting is no substitution for carbon reduction or elimination. There are only so many trees you can grow. This is particularly relevant for agriculture. To grow trees and restore grasslands we need free, available land to do so. Currently we have very little because half of our ice- and desert-free land is being used for agriculture.”

She added: “Morrisons’s strategy misses the key point that if we’re to meet our global climate targets the research is clear that need to see substantial reductions in meat and dairy consumption – particularly in the world’s richest countries. Their new strategy tries to get around this inconvenient fact by creatively accounting for carbon offsets. As more and more companies try to take this approach, this is going to become more and more difficult to achieve.”

Meat production now uses around 83 per cent of the world’s farmland and produces 60 per cent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

As a result, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has urged countries to implement policy to reduce meat consumption.

Reducing meat is regarded as a vital means of cutting overall emissions. And cutting out “creative accounting” is essential to realise the deep cuts in emissions that are required to stop the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

At the moment we are making woeful progress, with the world on track for emissions to be just 0.5 per cent below 2010 levels by 2030, compared with the 45 per cent required to reach net zero by 2050. 

Professor Tim Benton of the University of Leeds, an expert in food systems, sustainability and the climate crisis, and research director at Chatham House in energy, environment and resources, told The Independent there was much greater need to be clear about what is meant by the term net zero and the extent to which “offsetting” is allowed to make up the difference - if it even can at all.

Asked if Morrisons could continue to sell the same amount of meat it sells today and still hit net zero, Professor Benton said: “The simple answer is no.”

He said: “We need to have very rapid climate mitigation otherwise we really do face existential threats in the decades to come. That requires mainstream climate activity - getting every institution to think about it.

“On the one hand it’s positive, on the other hand it has to be transparent enough and metricised enough so that external auditors can come in and assess companies.

“The commitment is one thing but it has to be transparent and it has to be externally verifiable for companies to take any kudos from it.”

But he added: “It’s a good ambition to have. And to get three quarters of the way there and fail is better than not trying at all.”

This was echoed by Michael Clark, a researcher and James Martin Fellow at Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Population Health.

He told The Independent: “Morrisons ambition should be applauded and ideally mirrored by other food retailers if they haven’t already set similar targets.

“Finding ways to meet consumer preferences and supporting producer livelihoods is integral to moving towards net zero. If incentives for consumers to choose more sustainable foods, or for producers to grow more sustainably aren’t in place, then how we can expect to meet sustainability targets?”

But he also said: “Existing evidence strongly suggests that meeting net zero, or other environmental targets, will require reductions in meat production and consumption.”

In an email, Morrisons told The Independent customers still want to buy beef products, and that it has vegan products available too.

The company also said it was aiming to reduce emissions by 40 per cent in beef production “through improvements to what and how cattle eat”, and said it plans to offset the remaining 60 per cent through initiatives including tree planting, soil sequestration and on-farm renewable energy generation.

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