2050 Climate Group were recently asked to speak at a parliamentary briefing titled ‘“From the ground up”: Supporting farmers in the journey to climate-friendly farming in Scotland.’ The session was hosted by Finlay Carson MSP, and run in partnership with the WWF, Stop Climate Chaos Scotland and Scottish Environment LINK. We sent Rosie, one of our staff members, representing the ‘future consumer’ side of the discussion. She was joined by speakers from the producer (farmer) and supplier (business) side of Scotland’s food system, to discuss the potential opportunities to be gained in Scotland from a move towards climate-friendly farming.
Read her speech below:
What will the 2050 consumer look like?
Good afternoon – I am Rosie Watson and I work for the 2050 Climate Group. Our mission is to engage, educate and empower young people to lead action on climate change – to build a social movement of young people acting and leading in this area. In terms of this topic – agriculture, climate change, and dietary change – I have previously co-authored a research paper on the food system, mapping ‘nutrient flows’ from farm to fork, and comparing this to expected population growth in 2050.
What will 2050 look like in general?
If we’re talking about what the 2050 consumer will look like – we have to start with what the world in 2050 may look like in general.
2050 is a significant date. The IPCC’s latest report outlined the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees global warming above pre-industrial levels. The report found we really need to keep warming below a 1.5 degree increase – and to do this, emissions need to reach net zero, globally, by 2050. This may sound like a mammoth task, but it’s absolutely necessary. The report found that a 2 degree world could be characterised by more intense, frequent and unpredictable hot extremes, extreme precipitation, droughts, floods, storms and natural disasters. It is also much more likely that earth’s natural systems may reach a tipping point, triggering unstoppable climate change, at this level of warming. The world could look unimaginably different in this case – think as extreme as the Amazon rainforest drying up. This means that those involved in farming and agriculture will suffer hugely – so it’s especially in this industry’s interest to make every attempt to mitigate severe climate change – adaptation isn’t good enough.
We can’t discuss what 2050 might be like without considering seriously the implications of a 2 degree world. Thankfully, the IPCC found that the severity of these impacts could be halved or more by keeping warming to 1.5 degrees (compared to 2 degrees). It’s fair to say it’s worth our while doing everything we can to ensure we keep warming to below 1.5 degrees. To recap, the IPCC found that in order to do this, global emissions need to reach net zero, globally, by 2050. We are currently on track to reach 1.5 degrees warming between years 2030 and 2052.
The agricultural industry
The really good news is that the agricultural industry has huge power in this challenge – the contribution it could make to meeting this 1.5 target it amazing. It’s a big opportunity, and the industry has a relatively large amount of control over its own future, and everyone else’s, because of this. The ‘big issue’, and the opportunity to create change, is livestock products, and consumers are already catching on to this and changing how they eat. Dietary shifts away from livestock products could equal one-fifth of the mitigation needed to hold warming below the target (IPCC). It could significantly decrease deforestation, increase food security, and free up space for ecosystem restoration and carbon sinks, biodiversity etc.
The food research paper I was involved in writing found that almost 6000 calories worth of human-edible food is grown per person, per day, globally. This is three times the amount we actually need – no one should be going hungry! But, almost one third of these crops are then fed to animals. From everything they eat, animals only give 10% of the energy back (they waste most of it running around, keeping warm, chewing, having babies etc). So there is a huge inefficiency in the system of feeding crops which we could eat, which we’ve grown on land, to animals, which are on more land, which then give us this tiny proportion of energy back compared to what we’ve put in.
There is also no nutritional case – after looking at calories, we also mapped out protein flows and all of the essential nutrients needed in a healthy diet. We found that meat and dairy production reduces the global energy, protein, iron and zinc supplies potentially available to humans from crops.
We considered the expected population in 2050 (9.7 billion) and found that meat and dairy consumption must decrease if we are to avoid using up huge amounts of new land – even if we became more efficient, cut all food waste and didn’t overeat.
I want to emphasise at this stage that this doesn’t ask everyone to become vegan, and it recognises that in some cases, animals do a valuable job of converting non human-edible food (grass etc) into stuff we can eat (them). But it shows that pressure on land must be reduced, and supports the notion that meat and dairy will become something which is eaten much less regularly. There is a place for meat and dairy, but there is simply no ‘case’ for continuing with the agricultural system we have now – of growing crops to feed to animals. This isn’t just our research – many other papers support this, for example one recently found that moving from current diets to a diet that excludes animal products could reduce food’s land use by 76%, and emissions by almost a half (Poore and Nemecek, 2018). There is a huge opportunity for the agricultural industry to drive a more sustainable future.
What are the consumer trends right now?
74% of the British public are either very concerned or fairly concerned by climate change (Statista, 2018), and, the younger people are, the more concerned they are (British Social Attitudes survey, 2018). These are the ones we are looking at if we’re talking about 2050, as they will be the ones still alive and buying food! There is a big trend of veganism right now – Google found the search ‘veganism’ has gone from a popularity score of 17 to 88 in the last 10 years (out of 100). The main thing to emphasise is that veganism has become ‘normalised’ – it’s no longer a wacky ‘out there’ super committing lifestyle choice, it’s an option considered for one meal, a few days a week – people dip in and out of it. ‘Flexitarianism’ is becoming the new norm – for example, I am not officially vegetarian or vegan, but I only eat meat once or twice a month. I am reducing my dairy intake and buy oat milk, but currently have no intention of cutting dairy out completely. 20% of Britons have started reducing their meat/dairy intake, and market researchers expect sales of meat-free alternatives to continue rising (Mintel). These trends are reflected in the media, restaurants, supermarkets, chefs, food magazines – they are all responding. People are catching on and making the link between environmental issues and what they eat. This trend isn’t going away, and for someone becoming more environmentally conscious and wanting to ‘make a difference’, dietary change is one of the biggest areas someone can have an impact, and has relatively high levels of control over – they can wake up the next day and begin.
What did my colleagues say at 2050 Climate Group?
I put out a survey to my colleagues, asking them what they thought diets would look like in 2050. Their views aligned with the trends and the science – they agreed that in 2050 meat and dairy would be consumed very infrequently. They said a flexitarian diet would be the norm – eating meat perhaps one a week or less. Some talked about meat alternatives and technologies around this (e.g. lab meat) but there was general agreement that the emphasis will be on naturally occurring proteins e.g. beans and pulses.
There were some real positives for farming – they suggested that consumers will look for greater connection to their local farmers, and eat more local and seasonal food. Almost everyone emphasised this – and especially when people do eat meat and dairy, they will want to know where their food is from, and will look for meat from farms with higher welfare and environmental standards.
They also stated that farmers should be supported to make the necessary changes and to become powerful actors in mitigating climate change. People want to support local farmers – but we also need to face the reality of our global situation and act on the facts.
What does this mean for farmers?
There are some really obvious trends happening in reality, which line up with the scientific research. People are willing to change, and the trends will only accelerate – especially as the change is being driven by young people, and these are the ones who will still be around in 2050! Hand in hand with these trends is a push for more local and seasonal produce – people want to be connected to and support local farmers, just in a different way to before – different products, and with a higher assurance of welfare and environmental standards.
The fact that only a few farmers are changing with this shows that there is little policy support to make these changes yet. They need to be encouraged and supported in the shift to more mixed farming, growing more crops, and perhaps towards more ‘climate friendly’ livestock e.g. chickens and pigs, kept on land not suitable for crops. Incentives need to ensure they encourage away from intensive farming (perhaps incentivising partial rewilding of some land) – which decreases carbon held in the soil, along with many other negatives.
To summarise, in 2050, consumers will be eating less livestock products, be much more conscious of environmental issues and as such, will demand higher welfare and environmental standards from farms. They will perhaps buy meat occasionally, but as a treat, and from more local farms which they feel personally connected to. And finally, we know the agricultural industry could be a major actor in mitigating climate change – but they need to be supported in making these changes for the better, in a positive way. Failing to do these things is not an option, if we are to stay living in a climatically stable world of below 1.5 degrees global warming.