Ministers must hand farmers the right tools to protect our climate, if they are to secure the bright future they have promised.
British agriculture is getting a new settlement for the first time in three generations. The Agriculture Bill is going through parliament now and promises “public money for public goods”.
We at the Vegan Society were pleased with this announcement: this way, farmers will be rewarded for benefiting the wider world. But when we looked at the Bill, we found no detail, no promises and no guarantees.
At present, farmers are supported financially according to how much land they own. The government has called that system “arbitrary”.
One expects, then, that the move to public money for public goods would be proportional: the more public goods, the more money.
It seems not. Under the current proposals, Farmer A may have the best farm ever for the environment and get almost nothing, while a highly pollutive, industrial Farmer B could receive lots of subsidies to continue to pollute.
There is no detail on how ministers should distribute funds in response to public goods. A list of public goods is given, but not actually tied to the funds. Moreover, funds can be given not only for providing public goods but also for “starting … agricultural activity”, with no qualifications that this should be beneficial at all.
There is a risk that the spirit of the public goods approach may have left the bill before its realisation.
If the principle of the bill really were public money for public goods, it would encourage a large shift away from animal agriculture and towards environmentally friendly, plant-based agriculture.
Typically, farming animals is much worse for the environment and climate than growing crops. Beans, pulses, and legumes have benefits for conserving water, freeing up land, improving soil quality, and protecting biodiversity. Not only this - they have the power to mitigate climate change.
In contrast, UN figures indicate that globally, animal agriculture has a greater contribution to greenhouse gas emissions than all modes of transport combined: every car, plane, truck, ship, lorry, and so on.
That’s a surprising figure. It becomes less so when we observe that farming animals can produce large amounts of methane, require the production of feed, and involve deep inefficiencies.
After all, the overwhelming majority of the calories fed to animals is expended in keeping the animal alive, conscious, moving, and functioning. Only around 12 calories out of 100 are thought to be retained in the production of meat, dairy, and eggs. This results in more emissions, and more missed opportunities to feed our burgeoning population.
Growing crops for human consumption is kinder on the climate. If going vegan can reduce one’s food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent, then a shift towards a plant-based agricultural system would do a world of good for the planet.
Growing crops for human consumption is not only greener and cleaner. It is also conducive to our self-sufficiency.
Plant-based agriculture uses only half the land required for producing animal products, evidence suggests. So if we eat more plant-based food, our land can be used to grow more food, and there is greater potential for the UK to cut reliance on imports and grow more of what it eats.
This would carry some environmental benefit in itself, reducing food miles. But it also highlights how the vegan movement can support farmers at home. We should remember that vegans also support farmers, and typically, they strive to protect the environment on which farming so depends.
The Vegan Society's campaign Grow Green calls for subsidies to be shifted to encourage the plant protein industry. Crops such as beans, pulses, and legumes are healthy, sustainable, affordable, and ethical. They are wonder crops from a policy point of view. We used to grow much more of them, and some are suitable for growing across the UK.
Now that the Bill is at committee stage, we hope that pragmatic MPs will see the need for a more plant-based system. For now is the time for change. Two days before the Bill’s second reading, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) handed the world just twelve years to deal with our climate crisis. They called for agriculture to change, citing the need for “rapid and far-reaching” changes in land use.
Ministers must listen to this. And they must hand farmers the right tools to protect our climate, if they are to secure the bright future that they have promised.
William Gildea is a campaigns and policy officer at The Vegan Society, an educational charity.