From Afforestation to Animals – It’s Time to Talk About Agricultural Reform

by Kay Miller and Louis Goddard

14 June 2019

Steve Keiretsu /Flickr

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez launched her green new deal bill in February, it was animals hitting the headlines.

“[We] aren’t sure that we’ll be able to get rid of farting cows and airplanes” within ten years, her statement mentioned in passing, while outlining her resolution to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within that timeframe. The reactionary right led a childish backlash, former Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka declaring that “wild-eyed Democrats” want to “take away your hamburgers”, while senator John Barrasso said the loss of cheeseburgers and milkshakes would be a “national nightmare”.

Despite this pantomime, the idea of a green new deal has gained traction internationally. Yet the related question of agricultural reform remains neglected. AOC rowed back, assuring supporters that no one will be forced to “go vegan or anything crazy like that”, and is now keeping proposals vague. There’s a shared reticence in the UK too – reform of our land use and food production is an important part of any attempt to ‘green’ our economy, but references have tended to be broad and non-committal.

So what might a transformative approach to agricultural reform look like? And can we – or how can we – discuss the meat industry with any seriousness, not just on environmental grounds but in its rapacity towards and wastefulness of life – in other words, as an animal rights issue?

An ambitious attempt to position animal agriculture at the centre of climate change mitigation in the UK is provided in a recent report by Harvard researchers Helen Harwatt and Matthew Hayek. They start from commitments the UK has already made to reduce emissions – the 2008 Climate Change Act, which commits to an 80% reduction in domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, and the international Paris Agreement, which aims at limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. They calculate that the UK has about 12 years of emissions before the latter goal becomes unachievable, or an even shorter period if the global budget is divided up based on historic emissions.

The proposed solution is as simple as it is provocative: eliminate livestock farming, convert much of the land to arable use for human food and plant trees on the rest. This radical solution delivers the double blow of reducing GHG emissions while actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: gassy cows and their feed crops are replaced by carbon-hungry forests, with a host of variably convincing side benefits ranging from a reduction in eutrophication to the creation of new spaces for leisure.

Radical proposals come with radical benefits: Harwatt and Hayek estimate that the carbon reduction side of their gambit alone would offset between nine and 12 years of current UK CO2 emissions, depending on how fully the afforestation campaign was implemented. On the other side, using pasture land to grow fruit, vegetables and less traditional crops such as chillies would suit changing dietary habits and allow the UK to meet nutritional goals while relying less on carbon-intensive imports.

These scenarios compare well to proposals made by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in its May 2019 report, which limits itself to the more “credible” aim of achieving net-zero GHG emissions in the UK by 2050. It puts forward a scenario where beef and lamb production falls by 20%, while the total area of forest cover in the UK would increase by just 4% by 2050. To make these our targets for change over a 30-year period reflects neither the urgency of climate breakdown nor the UK’s true share of responsibility for it.

Harwatt and Hayek are clear that their proposals would need to be part of a climate change mitigation strategy focussed on fossil fuels, and that their speculative paper is only a springboard for further work. They admit, disarmingly, that their analysis does not consider “economic impacts related to changing agricultural production and land use” or “economic incentives to enable our modelled land use shifts”.

More important than these acknowledged blind spots, though, are the twin elephants in the room: the dramatic reduction in meat consumption that the proposals imply and the political context in which they would need to be implemented.

Though both resesarchers are based within Harvard’s animal law and policy programme, Harwatt and Hayek bypass the most immediate and obvious benefit of a reduction in livestock farming: a corresponding reduction in the infliction of suffering on animals. This is presumably intended as a tactical move to protect the report’s status as a ‘Serious Policy Proposal’, but it also risks undermining the argument. Why take such drastic and disruptive action without acknowledging its ethical benefits?

The report also avoids examining the geographically varied effects that its proposals would have. As a series of maps makes clear, land currently used for crops and pasture in the UK is distributed unevenly, on a broadly north-west/south-east axis. Arable land is concentrated in the east of England, the Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside, with pasture land – the main candidate for new forests – dominating south-west and north-east England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Afforestation would disproportionately affect some of the most marginal areas of the UK, already one of the most centralised and unevenly developed countries in Europe.

The situation is starkest in areas like south-west Wales and Northern Ireland, where the maps show vast swathes of the countryside covered in newly planted trees. However attractive the leisure opportunities on offer in this new wilderness, we should perhaps consider the livelihoods of the residents of Carmarthen and Crossmaglen before setting about transforming their immediate environment into a domestic Narnia.

Gaining support within the farming industry will not be an easy win either. So far, environmental reform has been neither incentivised nor embraced: according to the CCC, there has been almost no change in agricultural GHG emissions since 2008. However, the agricultural industry faces an uncertain future. After Brexit, the UK will no longer be part of the EU’s common agricultural policy, which has entrenched monopolistic and monocultural land management. This, and the bald fact of farming’s unsustainability, mean that the time is right for structural change.

In Northern Ireland, whose economy is more dependent on agriculture than any other part of the UK, groups such as the Alliance party and the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) have expressed resistance even to the Conservative party’s anaemic gestures towards farming reform. Alliance has stated “the optimal solution [post-Brexit] is no change from the present arrangements”, while the UFU has cautioned against any “imbalance in the support equation in favour of the environment and away from food production”.

Nevertheless, transformational reform of agriculture offers scope for much-needed improvement in an industry where much of the work is dangerous, isolating and exhausting. In 2013, the Agricultural Wages Board in England and Wales was abolished. Since then, English and Welsh agricultural workers have been left without statutory protection for their pay and conditions, while the industry remains poorly regulated and increasingly casualised and seasonal.

The Sustain Alliance has argued this has a knock-on effect on predominantly agricultural regions, “making communities poorer”. Meanwhile the migrant labourers on whose work the industry depends are subject to shocking pay and conditions, with the threatened loss of this exploited demographic post-Brexit another immediate pressure on the agricultural sector.

Groups such as Labour for a Green New Deal have emphasised the importance of a just transition which protects and enhances livelihoods. The regenerative opportunities offered by Harwatt and Hayek’s proposals are left to the reader’s imagination, but such boldness cannot exist in isolation. Effective social and environmental reform in the UK will require an “interlocking programme of action”, as described at the 2008 launch of the New Deal Group – a coalition of environmentalists and experts in economics, finance and energy.

In a recent discussion between Ann Pettifor and George Monbiot hosted by Novara Media, both were clear that we need to rethink our economy from the ground up, moving away from GDP as an indicator of success and deorbiting from consumerism, rather than relying on consumer choices to drive sustainability. As well as considering the different and better jobs that a green agricultural sector might offer, we should be pursuing ideas like universal basic services, moving on from the ideology of work for its own sake by making the means of reproduction a right for everyone.

Divesting from animal agriculture is a crucial part of reimagining our relationship with nature – how to use and participate in it sustainably, and to place a value on life, rather than mining land and bodies for profit regardless of suffering and destruction. Knowing what we know about livestock farming’s environmental impact, and confronting without prejudice what the industry actually is – an industry of slaughter – it’s not easy to see how its continued existence can be justified.

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