The co-founder of climate direct action group Extinction Rebellion has called on farmers to take to the streets and help pressure the government to act more urgently to tackle the climate crisis.
Gail Bradbrook spoke at a conference last week held by the Sustainable Food Trust to discuss how the food and farming sector can achieve net zero carbon emissions.
“Economic growth falls by 1 per cent with every one degree of warming,” she said. “We’re on track for four degrees. This system is over whether you believe it or not.
“What we’re doing is based on social theories of change. You need an active confrontation if you want to see change, that’s what it takes. It can be beautiful and peaceful. Join us and bring your tractors,” she added, calling on farmers to start a “rural rebellion”.
She noted the sixth mass extinction of biodiversity as well as the impact of climate breakdown on food production, describing future scenarios as a "multi bread basket failure".
Bradbrook also noted consumerism as a cause of environmental degradation, saying: “The ultimate cause is overpopulation and overconsumption by the rich. If people reduced their consumption to that of the average European, emissions would go down by a third. There is an issue here about individual action as well as policies.”
President of the National Farmers’ Union, Minette Batters, joined Bradbrook in highlighting the severity of the climate crisis. “Above all else, climate change is the challenge of our time,” she said.
The NFU has called for net zero carbon emissions from agriculture by 2040.
Batters also used her keynote speech to highlight other major threats to British farmers, including access to seasonal Eastern European labour and the lowering of quality and welfare standards to secure any proposed trade deal with the US.
Shadowing both of those issues is the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, Batters said. “No deal will set us back decades. It is catastrophic. If we have no deal, we won’t be able to negotiate for anything on standards,” she said.
Several academics took to the stage to outline the latest research on the role of livestock in methane emissions and global temperature rises.
Professor Michael Lee of Rothamsted Research, who specialises in sustainable livestock systems, said: “Ruminants produce methane so they are not sustainable – it’s not as black and white as that. It’s too simplistic to combine methane into a carbon equivalent.”
Lee said his team have developed a sustainability metric based on the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of nutrients consumed per 100g of product, which can be combined with other measures including methane emissions and land use, for an analysis that combines environmental impact with beneficial impacts.
“Sustainability is complex, but if we only have one metric we will have a skewed view,” he said.
Professor Myles Allen of Oxford University said reducing methane by 20 per cent has a cooling effect on temperatures and negates the effect of carbon emissions.
“Reducing agricultural emissions to zero will contribute to global cooling and take you back to the levels of the 1960s. But the question remains: will livestock farmers get any credit for doing this, and how do you achieve it?" he said.
Allen said there is ongoing research into how methane from cows and other ruminants can be reduced, such as changes to diet, but pointed out: “In a world of net zero emissions, we would probably want to increase domestic production [of food] for environmental reasons, rather than increase production overseas.”