Reducing meat production and meat eating has the potential to avert climate catastrophe. That sounds dramatic, but consider the facts. Livestock farming is responsible for as much as 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions – higher than all forms of transport combined. And a recent report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy revealed that the top five meat and dairy corporations have higher greenhouse gas emissions than oil giant Exxon.
This week I hosted a debate in the European Parliament on how we can reduce the climate impact of our diets based on a new report about tackling climate change through plant protein agriculture. Just 5 per cent of European consumers in 2016 followed a vegetarian diet compared with 19 per cent in Asia. And to feed the animals that eventually end up as meat on our plates requires the import of vast amounts of protein crops – especially soy – in the form of animal feed. This in turn contributes to deforestation in Latin America where large-scale intensive farms grow GMO soya to feed our animals.
The UK climate provides the perfect conditions for growing plant protein – largely peas and beans – for direct human consumption. Fava beans are but one example of the huge potential. They add essential nitrogen to soil, provide food beneficial to insects and are highly nutritious.
Hemp seeds are another. They can be grown almost anywhere, require low inputs of fertiliser, herbicides or pesticides and need little water, land and maintenance. Despite the potential, for farmers and consumers alike, the UK currently only assigns about 16 per cent of agricultural land to the growing of protein crops.
For farmers, protein crops can be incorporated into sustainable crop rotation systems and help a shift away from intensive chemical-reliant monocultures. They also have the rare ability to take nitrogen from the air and capture it in soil, reducing the need for expensive and environmentally damaging nitrogen fertilisers. For consumers, protein crops offer a more affordable source of protein than meat with many health benefits including being a good source of iron and fibre.
EU production of protein crops is tiny compared with consumption. Just 2.5 per cent of soya beans consumed in the EU are grown in the EU. A consultation launched recently by the Commission demonstrates a growing recognition of our over-dependency on protein imports for animal feed and the need for greater self-sufficiency. It is the first step in developing an EU-wide protein plan. As Greens, we are pushing for more protein crops to be grown on arable land and that one or two protein crops are incorporated into crop rotations. We also want to see a greater use of EU-grown protein plants for fodder for animals.
It is important to stress that this is not about demonising or alienating livestock farmers, but providing alternatives and encouraging more diversified diets with less dependence on meat for protein. There would also be huge environmental benefits, from reduced methane emissions (from farms) and carbon emissions (from transporting animals) through to protecting forests and wildlife from massive monoculture plantations.
Given the benefits of increasing home-grown protein crops, you would expect the idea to be part of the Government’s consultation on the future for food, farming and the environment in a “Green Brexit”, launched this week. But it receives no mention at all.
It is true that there are barriers to growing protein crops in the UK: costs are high and revenues are low due to low yields and low consumer demand. But surely “Green Brexit” offers a unique opportunity to be incentivising protein crops and helping to generate a market for them. This could be achieved through subsidies to farmers who grow them as part of crop rotations, publicly funding R&D on their benefits, public awareness campaigns of their health properties and procurement practices that encourage schools, hospitals and other public organisations to use more protein crops.
This week, extreme weather has been in the news: the “Beast of the East” bringing cold weather and blizzards to the UK, as well as the Arctic experiencing unprecedented warmth. This prompted one climate scientist to comment: “There are further surprises in store as we continue to poke the angry beast that is our climate.”
Changing the way we grow, produce and eat food is not only essential to tame this “angry beast”; it is also one of the easier ways we can transition to a low carbon economy and lifestyle. We just need the right economic incentives and political will to make it happen.
Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West and is a member of the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee
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