The widely leaked IPCC report #SRCCL has been launched today. It is a thorough, clear and serious report. But yet again, some UK commentators seem to be fixating on just one or two aspects of it, and in doing so risk missing important contributions.
Like our own RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission reports, Our Future in the Land, and Field Guide for the Future, the IPCC report takes a whole system view across climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, land management, and food security, with detailed recommendations for involving people and communities in responding to the critical issues.
Yes, it draws attention to agriculture’s global impact on land use: how intensive agriculture depletes soil quality, releases carbon, methane and other pollutants such as synthetic nitrogen, causing long lasting and far reaching impacts. It calls for systematic approaches to land management, in countries and bio-regions, which involve people and communities in decision making, especially those most affected by change.
And yes, the report talks about reducing meat consumption. It also acknowledges that livestock in sustainable systems is key to climate adaption, reintroducing pasture-fed livestock into arable rotations and regenerating carbon-sequestering grasslands, where that makes ecological sense to do so.
These are big topics, but the report says much more. It also sets out how to create and sustain the conditions to take substantial and sustainable actions – a message particularly relevant to our UK government.
Two of their major contributions are at risk of being lost amongst the more eye-catching headlines.
First, it talks about the importance of ‘joined up policy packages’, not single-issue silver bullet solutions, fired off from different government departments with disconnected policy agendas. Second, it stresses the importance of real citizen participation – from choosing the metrics that matter, to the actions to prioritise. This requires listening carefully to local intelligence, observing indigenous practices, for grounded insights into how ecosystems work, how they are changing and what’s needed to protect and restore them.
Like us, the report emphasises the critical relationships between national and supranational strategies and building grass roots capacity and resilience; connecting bottom up and top down concerns, to strengthen the whole food systems for transformative and sustainable change.
This is a report for a global audience. Reducing inequalities between rich and poor countries is central to a fair and just transition to a more sustainable future. It’s down to those of us in developed countries to reduce our impacts on the planet, so that developing countries can get a fair share of the earth’s resources to meet their basic material needs and to improve their health and wellbeing. But rich countries too, have to reduce the inequalities in their food systems.
The RSA Food, Farming & Countryside Commission recommendations for the UK offer some radical and practical proposals.
England needs a land use framework, to match the work happening in Scotland and Wales, which helps join up these complex and contested issues across government departments and also between national, regional or local concerns. This recommendation has been widely supported. But shifting from intention to action in these turbulent times is more difficult. A standing Land Use Commission – like the National Infrastructure Commission – could provide independent research and analysis, inclusive evidence gathering, proposals and mediation, for making land use decisions.
UK farmers and growers need practical, worked through, transition plans, so they can spearhead the fourth agricultural revolution we need. Farmers will do what is required of them, with the right support. We are already working with farmers, growers, food businesses and citizens to work out what this looks like in practice – what farmers can get on and do themselves or in partnerships, and the resources they need to help shift the whole farming system towards more regenerative agriculture, from businesses and governments. Many farmers are already on this journey, producing nutritious and affordable food, at the same time as repairing ecosystems.
It’s time to level the playing field for a fair food system. It must become easy and affordable to find healthy, nutritious food everywhere, and, at the same time, expensive, difficult or illegal to produce food that harms people and planet. An unintended consequence of a rapid shift to plant-based diets is the rise in popularity of uninformed fads. Eating less meat will not help climate and ecosystem breakdown if the meat that is eaten comes from intensively produced grain-fed livestock; or if the alternatives are produced from resource-hungry plants, grown on land grabbed from sensitive and fragile ecosystems, and shipped round the world, to feed the whims of wealthier nations. And eating less meat will not help improve our health if we eat more nutritionally poor, ultra-processed, fast foods that make great profits for global agri-businesses but cost the earth in their impact on people’s health and wellbeing.
The IPCC has produced a thoughtful, nuanced report, which appreciates and works with the complex human dimensions of climate change, land use and food security. Rather than focussing on the headline-grabbing stories, which make up one part of a much larger picture, we need to work together to translate the messages of this IPCC report, and others like it, and into radical and practical actions.
Director, RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission
Read Our Future in the Land here and Field Guide for the Future here