Down the Drain delves deep into issues around climate change and Cornwall’s fresh water – looking at everything from heavier rain leading to more sewage overflows, flooding and loss of topsoil, to how warmer river water is affecting fish, and the surprising carbon footprint of the water we use every day.
It also focuses on how people around Cornwall are working to tackle these problems – from farmers changing the way they manage their land to a project to ‘re-wet’ Bodmin Moor’s peat bogs, and efforts to reintroduce the beaver – which was driven to extinction in the UK about 400 years ago.
Presented by the ‘lone kayaker’ Rupert Kirkwood, this film takes us on a journey through Cornwall’s water cycle, and offers tips and solutions for how each of us can help to protect this vital resource that we all depend on.
Listen to Alan Burrows explaining about the hidden carbon footprint of our water, how we can all take steps to fight climate change through the way we use it, and how climate change itself can pose challenges to our water supply and the environment.
Bruce tells us in more depth about the challenges facing Cornwall’s salmon and the work to monitor them on the River Tamar
Jackie talks more about the need to ensure major development projects in Cornwall don’t lead to flooding problems – and the challenges around getting developments to incorporate the right kind of drainage.
Louisa explains in more detail about flood risk, emergency plans, property flood resilience and looming problems with insurance as the Flood Re scheme comes to an end.
Nick tells us more about how he got involved with monitoring his local river – and why it’s so important that as many as possible of us become champions for our local watercourses too.
Simon talks in greater depth about the intersecting problems of more industrial farming, a growing population, changing land use, and climate change – and how these all impact on the rivers we love.
Chris talks about how beavers have changed the environment and biodiversity on his farm – and talks more about different ways in which farmers could manage their land to be a big part of the solution to the climate and ecological emergencies.
Janet Lockyer recounts her experiences of being flooded twice - and the huge emotional impact and practical upheaval after the waters had subsided.
Save water, save money….and reduce carbon emissions
Cornwall’s population is growing, and climate change is not only bringing bursts of increasingly torrential rain – but also bringing longer drier periods.
The less water we use, the more there will be in the environment to keep our rivers healthy.
Using less water will also reduce carbon emissions. Because Cornwall is so large, with so many remote communities, a lot of chemicals and energy are used not just to treat our drinking water and sewage, but also to pump them around to where they need to be.
The average person in the South West Water region uses 143 litres of water a day right now. If each of us saved just five litres of water a day, that would save about 3.3 billion litres of water each year!
Switching to a water meter helps many people reduce water bills by up to £400 a year.
South West Water has an online calculator to help you estimate what your metered bill would be. If you have a meter installed it also gives you two years to revert back to unmetered bills if you change your mind.
There are also all sorts of water-saving solutions that can hugely cut water consumption.
These include low flow shower heads and taps, as well as very low flow or dual flush toilets (if you need to install a new toilet). If you have an old fashioned single flush toilet, a more sustainable option is simply the tried and trusted old trick of putting a brick or other solid object inside the cistern to reduce the amount of water used per flush.
Getting a water butt connected to your downpipes is a great way of saving water too, as well as helping to stop flooding. Store the water that’s run off your roof to use on your garden when your plants actually need it – they will do much better with rainwater than chlorinated tap water too.
If you’re renovating or building a house you could go a step further, cutting your mains water use by up to 50% by installing a full rainwater harvesting system. This enables you to capture much more of the rain that falls on your house – and use the collected water for your toilet and washing machine (as well as your garden).
The rainwater is collected in a large underground tank for later use. Imagine what a big impact it could have on flooding if every house had one of these!
Find out loads more simple water-saving tips here:
WATER POLLUTION – SEWAGE, RUN-OFF AND CHEMICALS
Would you like to join the army of volunteer citizen scientists out monitoring our local streams and rivers? You’d be amazed at what you will find…. and the data you collect could be invaluable, given the huge reduction in testing that the Environment Agency is able to do.
There are two main types of testing – chemical and biological.
The Westcountry Rivers Trust CSI (Citizen Science Investigations) initiative is a holistic river survey. Volunteers are trained in chemical water sampling as well as how to capture data on pollution sources, flow conditions, invasive plants, wildlife, sediment, etc. Find out more here
Riverfly testing is biological sampling – looking for the larval forms of a wide range of different flying insects. The number and type of creatures found can give a very good indication of the health of the river – and also about the nature of any recent pollution incidents. Find out more here:
Report pollution incidents
Despite the Environment Agency’s recent announcement that it no longer has the resources to respond to ‘minor’ pollution incidents, it is best still to report all cases so that they are logged for future reference.
Pollution incidents could be many things – run-off of topsoil from farmland into watercourses, sewage spills, dead fish, etc. Call the Environment Agency’s pollution incident hotline on: 0800-807060
Check the water before you get in!
There are several apps available so that swimmers, surfers and other water users can find out about water quality and CSO events (sewer spills) in their area.
While you might expect sewer spills in very rainy or stormy conditions (often when the waves are good!) they can also happen at times when you may not expect them, due to blockages or other issues.
Check out the Surfers Against Sewage Safer Seas app to see whether there have been any recent coastal sewer spills here
Check out the Rivers Trust’s online map ‘Is my river fit to play in’ to see the location of storm overflows near you and find out how much they spill: Click here
Help prevent sewer overflows from the comfort of your own home
Climate change will bring increasingly heavy and torrential rain – which will put more pressure on our old combined sewer system (where rainwater running off roads, buildings and farmland ends up in the same pipes as our domestic sewage).
This means combined sewer overflows (CSOs) are more likely to operate.
However, the situation is made much worse by blockages in the sewers. Many of these are caused by caused by ‘fatbergs’ – disgusting tangles of congealed fats and oils, mixed with non-biodegradable plastic items like wet wipes, nappies and tampon applicators.
Cooking oils are liquid in a warm kitchen, but they can solidify in a cold sewer, so they should always be disposed of in the bin.
And absolutely nothing should go down the toilet except pee, poo and paper. Wet wipes may look like they’re flushable, but they’re actually made from synthetic plastic fibres that just won’t break down, and sadly end up polluting the environment.
Don’t overload the sewer system
If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, don’t pave it over or lay down astroturf. These are not only bad for nature, killing all the life in the ground in that area, but they also prevent water from seeping gently into the soil.
The earth can store huge amounts of water in the ground – but the more hard, paved surfaces we create, the more we are reducing its capacity to act as a natural sponge and prevent flooding.
If you’re able to, plant a tree (or several trees!). Trees can suck up huge amounts of water, and their roots can also bind soil together, helping to prevent flooding. Some species, like willow and alder, love to have their ‘feet wet’ and will happily grow in boggy areas.
If you have a soakaway at your home, make sure it is properly maintained. If it’s blocked up with silt it’s just not going to work.
Keep drains clear – especially in autumn check that they’re not blocked up with leaves.
What else can you do to help our rivers?
Remember that nearly all the chemicals we use in our homes, gardens and cars will end up in water – whether that’s down the shower, sink or toilet, or by being washed directly into the environment.
Try to use products that are as gentle on the environment as possible – for example dish washing liquid, laundry detergents, toilet cleaners, cleaning products, etc.
Many garden and farm pesticides and weed killers do not break down in the environment and continue acting as poisons for a long time. This can have a serious impact on aquatic invertebrates, which are the base of the whole food chain relied upon by all the higher animals we know and love, such as fish, frogs, otters, kingfishers and swallows.
One possibly surprising source of poisons in our rivers is from external pet flea treatments, which can find their way into the water when dogs are washed or swim in rivers.
Flea treatment chemicals are incredibly potent – the amount of pesticide used to treat a single medium-sized dog would be enough to kill 60 million bees.
Around 80% of the 10 million dogs in the UK receive regular flea treatment, whether it’s needed or not. Fipronil, an insecticide and one of the most commonly used flea treatments, was found in 99% of samples taken from 20 rivers in a 2020 survey.
It’s best to treat your pet for fleas only if they actually have fleas – which are not usually active in winter – and best to ask your vet for internal flea tablets instead of using the external dab-on treatments.
Around 28,000 properties in Cornwall are already at potential risk from either surface water and river flooding, storm surges or coastal erosion, and this figure will increase in future.
Preparation is key!
Check whether your house – or a house you are thinking of buying or renting – is in a known flood risk area here
Sign up for flood alerts here
The Be Flood Ready site (https://www.befloodready.uk/) provides loads of useful and locally-tailored information on how to protect your property from flooding, how to cope and recover from flooding, advice and support: https://www.befloodready.uk/
Does your community or parish have an emergency plan?
How resilient would your town or village be in the case of a storm, flood or other emergency? Is there a plan for protecting people and property?
What about elderly neighbours, or people living in more remote or cut-off parts of your area?
Cornwall Community Flood Forum (https://www.cornwallcommunityfloodforum.org.uk/) provides information and support for communities, and training for volunteer flood wardens and response teams.
What about insurance?
Many people are worried about whether their insurance premiums will go up – or if they may even be unable to get insurance at all in future, especially if they have previously already had to make a claim.
The good news is that most homeowners will be protected thanks to the Flood Re scheme
Flood Re was set up to ensure flood risk will continue to be insured for permanently occupied residential properties that were built before 2009. (The Flood Re scheme compensates insurers to have to pay out for flood claims, and is funded from a pot paid from a proportion of all UK homeowner insurance policies).
Look at the Flood Re tool on this website to find out if your property qualifies: floodre.co.uk
Note that not all insurers use Flood Re, so check with your insurer that you will be covered.
Note that Flood Re does not cover businesses. If you are a business owner, check out Cornwall’s Flood Risk Snapshot service from Climate Vision (climatevision.co.uk), to help ready your business for the impacts of climate change.
Flood Re comes to an end in 2039. What happens then?
After 2039, many properties could become uninsurable and unmortgageable due to their flood risk.
In anticipation of this, the Government is planning to trial a system of flood performance certificates – similar to energy performance certificates.
These will grade properties based on their flood risk, which could be brought down depending on the type and amount of property flood resilience products installed, enabling people potentially to still be able to sell or insure their properties.
Remember, if you are considering property flood resilience products, always use a company that installs kite-marked products and works in line with the industry code of practice, surveying the property correctly.
Premier Water Solutions 10 Ltd, featured in our film Down the Drain, are one such reputable firm in Cornwall: premierwatersolutions.co.uk
Help protect peat
Peat covers only 3% of the world’s surface but is estimated to contain as much carbon as all the world’s forests!
But despite this, and its importance for flood protection and water storage, peat is still being burned over large areas in the UK to create the right conditions for grouse shooting.
It is also being dug up for compost – a lot of compost sold in UK garden centres contains peat.
Although it will become illegal to sell peat compost after 2024, in the meantime make sure you choose ‘100% peat free’ compost…. Or even better, make your own at home!
None of the British salmon you might see for sale in the supermarket is actually wild caught, because it is now so endangered.
What you see on sale will be farmed salmon, probably from salmon farms in Scotland. (although farmed salmon have a whole host of associated environmental issues – see more on the Plenty More Fish? page).
The sharp decline in salmon, due to a whole range of different pressures, has led to byelaws being put in place in Cornwall that now mean salmon may only be caught by anglers under a ‘catch and release’ scheme.
The Environment Agency advises that rod-caught salmon have a good chance of surviving if they are handled with care and released back into the water after no more than a few seconds.
Learn more about beavers and what they could do to help combat the climate and ecological emergencies, as well as providing natural flood solutions. Support the work of the Beaver Trust here: beavertrust.org
With around a quarter of our total personal carbon footprint coming from food, what we choose to eat can have a huge impact, not just on our health, but on the planet’s too.
But there is a huge amount of controversy, confusion and conflicting claims about the real impact of the different things we eat – especially given that so much of our food today contains multiple ingredients from all over the world. The connection between animal agriculture and climate change is probably the most contentious area of all.
Check out the Our World in Data site for some fascinating illustrations of the relative impacts of different types of foods – some of them might really surprise you!
There is a lot of information in this section of our website – because when you get behind the headlines things are not necessarily quite as black and white as they may seem…
Please note any recommendations given in this section are just a sample and certainly not exhaustive – if you know of a great farm or anybody else producing food in a progressive, climate-friendly way please let us know so we can look at adding them.
According to the United Nations, livestock farming contributes at least 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all the world’s cars, trucks, planes and ships.
Meat and dairy consumption is increasing rapidly as the world gets richer. In fact, over the same period that the world’s human population has doubled, meat consumption has increased fivefold.
Around 80% of all the world’s farmland is devoted to raising animals, and about half of all the crops grown worldwide are fed to domestic livestock rather than humans.
Globally, we now slaughter over 70 billion animals for food each year, and clearing of wild land to farm animals is a leading cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss.
The largest increase in livestock numbers has been among chickens and pigs, but the number of cattle and sheep on the planet has also doubled over the past 50 years.
In fact, humans and our few species of domesticated livestock now account for 96% of all the biomass of mammals on the planet, while all the world’s wild mammal species combined make up just 4%.
At current levels, climate scientists warn that global livestock farming and meat consumption will take us well beyond the critical ‘safe’ threshold of 1.5 degrees of climate warming.
There is broad agreement among everyone from the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change to the UK government’s own Climate Change Committee that a key step needed to help avoid climate breakdown must be a significant reduction in meat and dairy consumption.
Find out more about the impacts of meat and other kinds of foods in Oxford University’s Meat the Future resource.
There are clearly big differences between animals living outdoors on permanent pasture on a Cornish farm (land that was deforested centuries ago) and cattle grazing on recently-cut Amazon rainforest or farmed in their thousands in intensive feedlots.
And while ‘growing’ animals for meat generally uses much more land and water than the resources needed to grow a similar volume of protein-rich plant foods such as beans or nuts, the reality is that farming crops for human consumption is very difficult in some parts of the world, for example where rainfall is unpredictable.
In these subsistence communities, animals can convert plant matter like grass and thorns, which humans can’t eat, into nutrient dense meat and milk (although climate breakdown may unravel this food security – with one-quarter of Kenya’s cattle having died due to drought over recent years, for example).
Cornwall is not a place where other foods cannot be grown. However, many of our upland areas are too poor for growing crops, and our topography, soil and climate make the whole of the Duchy supremely suited to growing grass – and therefore farming livestock.
If grazed well, the grass and other plants in permanent pastures and herbal leys can keep growing and photosynthesising nearly all year here (unlike trees), locking carbon from the air down through their roots into the soil, while also allowing meat and milk to be produced.
However, right now much of the grass that we see Cornwall’s livestock grazing on is a temporary monoculture of high energy rye grass. This does not have the same carbon capturing benefit of a herbal ley, and generally requires significant artificial fertiliser use and ploughing – both of which are bad for the climate.
All cows, sheep and other ruminants burp methane. In fact, 80% of all livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions come from ruminant animals, mostly cattle.
Methane is also released from animal waste rotting in manure heaps and dairy farm slurry stores (including pig and poultry farms, etc).This map shows how the UK’s methane emissions correlate closely with the parts of the country with most dairy and livestock farms.
It is often argued that, because it lasts only a short time in the atmosphere (decades rather than hundreds of years like CO2), the methane being produced by livestock today is simply replacing what was produced by animals in the recent past.
While it is true that the ruminant population in Cornwall has not hugely changed, and our local cows produce less methane than animals in other parts of the world that eat a rougher diet, the sheer number of ruminants worldwide and the scale of the pits used to contain their waste has ballooned in recent years.
This is a major problem because methane is 86 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas over the first 20 years after it is emitted.
Livestock emissions combined with the large amounts of methane also being released by the fossil fuel industry mean levels of this gas in the atmosphere are now rising worryingly fast.
And we’re also facing a methane double whammy …
The Earth’s atmosphere has already heated on average by over one degree, and places that hold truly gigantic stores of ancient natural methane, such as the frozen lakes and permafrost in the Arctic, are starting to melt. The potential for these vast methane stores to be released could lead us into rapid and uncontrolled climate breakdown.
Urgently addressing ALL emissions of methane, be they from livestock or industry, could therefore buy us a bit more time to respond to this threat.
There are various areas of research looking at how to address methane emissions from animal agriculture, for example by adding feed additives such as seaweed to limit the amount that cattle burp.
Other initiatives include the Bennamann scheme (shown in our film) to turn the methane released from slurry lagoons into fuel, and the promotion of pasture-fed systems to fully or partly offset livestock emissions by drawing atmospheric carbon down into the soil.
But given the urgency of the problem, should we be doing more?
At the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in 2021, over 100 countries pledged to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030, and some countries are already taking decisive steps to try to meet this goal.
For example, nearly half New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, mainly methane, and plans are now afoot to charge farmers for their emissions, while in Ireland, where 35% of national greenhouse gases come from farming (the highest level in Europe), plans have been mooted to cull a large proportion of the dairy herd.
The Netherlands has the highest density of livestock in Europe and is the continent’s biggest meat exporter. The government there is looking at buying out 3,000 of the country’s most polluting farms, or compensating them to transition to less intensive farming methods, with the aim of reducing livestock numbers by one-third.
Some people argue that animals in intensive large commercial systems have lower lifetime impacts than free range animals, because they take up much less land.
Because they’re indoors with food in constant supply, the animals don’t waste energy moving around to forage or trying to keep warm, meaning they grow faster, producing more meat or milk more quickly. Cows fed on concentrated feed may also burp less methane than pasture-fed ones grazing outdoors, since grass is harder to digest.
However, this ignores the huge amounts of energy and ‘ghost acres’ required to keep these intensive systems going. While the footprint of a factory farm or feedlot may seem relatively small, it will be responsible for vast emissions due to the amount of land worldwide being ploughed up and sprayed with chemicals to grow feed crops like soya.
In fact a chicken breast from a factory farm is very likely to have more soya in it than a similar amount of tofu, because of the quantity of soya the chicken would have eaten in its short life to produce that meat.
Intensively farmed animals are also often treated with high doses of antibiotics, chemicals, medicines and growth hormones, etc.
The planet’s soils are a vast carbon sink, estimated to hold about three times more carbon than the atmosphere, so we must protect them at all costs.
Large herbivores have played a key role in the evolution of our landscape throughout the ages, helping to build up soils as they graze and defecate.
It has been proposed that increasing the amount of carbon-rich soil organic matter (e.g. compost, animal dung, etc) in soil by just 0.4% each year over a number of years could be enough to compensate for all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.
Right now, however, the opposite is happening, with many soils eroding and degrading, releasing their stored carbon and adding to global greenhouse gas emissions.
Soils with a greater organic matter content could be lifesavers in other ways as climate change ramps up too. Healthy soils are much better at storing water – helping to prevent flooding in winter, and also retaining moisture to help crops grow and keep rivers flowing in dry periods.
Regeneratively-farmed, pasture fed livestock play an essential role in soil recovery, and so could be really important in fighting climate change.
At the moment, however, only a fraction of animals in the UK are farmed in this way, and if all farming was regenerative this would support far fewer animals – producing less milk and meat than the amount currently consumed.
While this could have significant benefits for biodiversity, the climate, and also human health, it could be a very hard sell with a public accustomed to cheap meat and dairy. It would also cause massive upheaval in the farming industry, with many farmers either going out of business or having to significantly change their farming practices.
Farming and the food system we have right now is a result of government policy, subsidy regimes, supermarket contracts and foreign trade deals. Such a huge change in farming practice would require major government intervention and support.
While consumption of industrially-farmed meat and dairy at current levels is bad for human health and unsustainable for the planet, regeneratively farmed, pasture fed livestock could help cushion climate impacts and boost the capacity of our soils to grow healthy food without damaging artificial fertilisers.
The Northern Kenya Rangelands Carbon Project is the world’s first large-scale grasslands soil carbon project. By changing grazing practices it aims to improve the soils over 1.9 million hectares, aiming to remove and store 50 million tons of CO2 over 30 years – the same as the emissions of over 10 million cars – as well as improving habitat for endangered species.
Projects like this could be really exciting. However, it is important to note that the soil’s carbon storage mechanisms are still not fully understood.
It is very unlikely that soil can continue absorbing more and more carbon indefinitely. It is believed that soil carbon content reaches equilibrium after a few decades, so the benefits of carbon sequestration through good grazing management – although very important – will be time limited.
There is also uncertainty over how long any sequestered carbon may remain in the soil, and changing conditions (droughts, floods, over grazing, change of farming system, etc) could lead to any stored carbon being rapidly lost.
So by far the best way to keep carbon locked down in the soil is to reduce the conversion of wild land (forests, scrub, etc), which holds very stable carbon stores, into grazing for cattle or ploughed arable land.
As well as farming more regeneratively, returning at least some of the land currently used for livestock farming to a more natural state could also be very important in reversing soil carbon losses.
You can find loads more information about soil health – and how that links in with human health – on the brilliant Regenerative Food and Farming website (regenerativefoodandfarming.co.uk)
Another very interesting resource is the ‘Grazed and Confused’ report from the Food Climate Research Network at Oxford Martin School, which explains more about soil health, soil carbon, and how livestock farming interacts with this. https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/reports/fcrn_gnc_report.pdf
It is traditionally thought that creating sufficient soil fertility to grow cereals or other crops on a large scale must either involve using livestock as part of the rotation or artificial fertilisers.
However, a movement is developing called "veganics", which uses a sophisticated composting system to grow organic produce without either chemicals, manure or any other animal products to improve the soil. Will this be part of the future solution?
Meat and dairy are certainly good sources of protein. However, in the UK we are already eating about 50% more protein than is good for us, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey.
For health, men should eat on average 55g and women 45g of protein daily. That’s about two palm-sized portions – but these do not only need to come from animal sources.
Animal products, while high in protein, can also be high in fats, and it is a good idea for both the climate and your health to replace some of your meat and dairy intake with other protein-rich foods such as tofu, nuts, pulses, oats, brown rice and eggs.
You may find a plethora of confusing labels certifying various forms of farming methods and animal welfare on meat and dairy products – but what do they actually mean?
Around 50,000 British farmers are accredited to Red Tractor standards, which form the basis of buying and sourcing specifications for major supermarkets, household brands and restaurant chains.
Red Tractor certification means the product is traceably British and complies with certain rules around use of pesticides and antibiotics, animal welfare etc., but not soil health.
The RSPCA Assured logo on meat, fish, dairy and egg products means the animals were reared to set welfare standards. However, this has nothing to do with the farming system and its potential climate or environmental impact.
LEAF marque accreditation is granted to farmers who meet certain standards in farm practices to help tackle the climate and ecological emergencies, including reduced antibiotic use in animals, use of renewables, soil and water management, and habitat protection. Nearly 900 businesses, farming 310,537 hectares of land around the world, have LEAF marque certification.
Products marked with the Soil Association logo are organic – this means they have been produced without any artificial chemical additives such as feed, medicines, pesticides, fertilisers etc.
This is great for the soil and the nutritional quality of the product. However, organic farming may also involve practices that are damaging for soil carbon storage, such as ploughing, to break down the remnants of previous crops grown in a field (unlike conventional farming, where this may be done using herbicides).
Some farms grow to organic principles but do not pay to have Soil Association accreditation.
To have had a really positive impact on soil health, the most climate friendly meat and dairy will come from pasture-fed animals that were raised without chemical inputs and moved in a mob grazing system across herbal leys made up of a variety of deep-rooted plants.
While an increasing number of farmers around Cornwall, such as those featured in Food for Thought, are using at least some of these practices, they are still very much in the minority, so we asked our film’s presenter Lisa Guy for some tips on how customers can have the most positive climate impact with any meat they buy. This is what she told us:
“Unfortunately, labelling and signposting to help people find good meat is still limited, but a really valuable place to start is to start asking questions.
“Ask your butcher, the pub, the café, the restaurant, the shop… where does this meat come from?
“Is it local? Is it pasture fed and finished? Is it from a regenerative or organic farm?
“Don’t feel nervous or embarrassed about asking! This action really can have an impact. If outlets realise that people want to buy ‘better’ meat this will start to inform them – and will be a huge encouragement to farmers who are working to produce high quality, high welfare, environmentally-friendly meat.
“Ideally, try not to buy meat in the supermarket, but take the time to find a local farm, farmer’s market, business or butcher that is selling ‘better’ meat.”
This is not going to be feasible for everyone, so if you do buy supermarket meat, organic is the best option.
Some organic veg box schemes also include meat options, so you can have meat delivered to your door – but make sure to ask them the same questions about how that meat was farmed for soil and climate.
Also remember that you don’t just have to buy prime cuts. There are cheaper cuts, particularly with beef, like shin and stew bones for making amazing broth, that are packed with flavour and nutrition.
Check out Lisa’s website. Even if you don’t want to buy one of her beef boxes, there’s lots to read about all the other climate and nature-friendly initiatives going on at Higher Keigwin Farm.
You will also be able to find links to useful information and good local farm businesses and growers through the following sites:
Pasture Fed Livestock Association - The listings on this site are fairly limited, and be aware that ‘pasture fed’ animals may have been grazed on artificially-fertilised rye grass, which won’t be doing a huge amount for soil health or carbon sequestration
Tim Williams, also featured in our film, farms for Crocadon – a ‘farm to fork’ restaurant in South East Cornwall, where everything sold has been grown, raised or foraged on site to soil-friendly, high welfare and high environmental standards.
Another interesting business to check out is The Cornwall Project, Regenerative farmer Matt Chatfield is farming sheep in a totally different way, letting them live on long after they would generally have been slaughtered, regularly moving around a woodland silvopasture system so they have a beneficial impact on the health of the soil (which is often far from the case with over-stocked sheep kept on the same patch of ground).
His high-end mutton (not lamb) now sells to some of the top restaurants in London.
Remember that just because a farm is ‘local’ does not mean that the meat it produces is low impact. Unless the animals are pasture fed they might be eating food grown in climate-wrecking systems and imported from the other side of the world!
Other sites for finding local, regeneratively farmed/ organic produce (not necessarily meat):
It is hard to have any idea about the farming system behind supermarket milk, as milk from individual farms is collected and mixed together in big milk tankers.
Because their margins are so small, most dairy farmers have little option but to focus on getting the maximum possible yield out of their land and animals. Many farms today are therefore large, industrial operations using a lot of bought-in products and/ or growing feeds like maize that can cause other serious environmental problems due to ploughing, soil run-off etc.
If you do buy milk at the supermarket, choosing organic will mean the cows have not been treated with antibiotics or other chemicals, and the feed they have eaten will not have been grown with chemical inputs like fertilisers or pesticides, etc. – although they may have been transported long distances and been produced in ways that are not particularly beneficial to the soil or climate.
However, there is a small but growing number of commercial dairies are starting to explore more pasture-based systems, where cows are being grass fed for most or all of the year.
One example is Ennis Barton Farm, one of the three Net Zero farms in Cornwall. The results of the studies being done here could help to demonstrate how dairy farms can produce their product with a much lower carbon footprint – hopefully paving the way for many others in the industry.
Some other recommended dairies in Cornwall include Treen Farm near Land’s End, a small organic farm selling milk through a variety of outlets here: treenfarm.co.uk/our-products/
At Trink Dairy near St Ives you can also visit to see the cows being milked, and buy milk from the farm’s vending machine.
One standard aspect of the general dairy industry is the separation of calves from their mothers when they are just a few days old. This inevitably causes distress for the animals, but results in greater milk production than allowing the calves to suckle naturally from their mothers.
There is now a small but growing movement of dairies that allow cows to keep their calves ‘at foot’. Milk sharing in this way delivers a smaller yield but ensures higher animal welfare by permitting mother and calf to express their natural behaviours.
Find outlets here (there are none listed in Cornwall): cowcalfdairies.co.uk
The Calf at Foot Dairy sells products by mail order.
Trewithen Dairy – Earth Milk
Climate-friendlier dairy doesn’t only have to be a small-scale, niche thing. Trewithen is one of Cornwall’s biggest dairies, with capacity to process 150 million litres of milk per year and produce enough clotted cream for 100,000 cream teas a day.
Its Earth Milk project started in 2020, with two of its supplier farmers spearheading research into how to to produce carbon neutral milk.
Hundreds of boreholes have been dug with the help of satellite positioning technology and thousands of soil samples have been sent to independent laboratories, showing that – through changes to land management – the organic content of most of the soils tested is increasing year-on-year.
The aim is to prove that farms within the programme can offset the greenhouse gas footprint of their milk production process through measures like reducing fertiliser use, improving wildlife, planting trees and hedges and grazing cattle on rich herbs.
To achieve this, the farms will need to add 0.1% organic matter per hectare per year to their soils, which Trewithen believe will draw down 8.9 tonnes of extra CO2 per hectare.
Trewithen is supplied by 36 farms, all operating within 25 miles of the dairy, and it will be inviting a further two to four farms to join the project in 2023.
All its supplier farms must meet certain standards, such as allowing the cows to graze on grass for at least 120 days a year, and soil carbon measurement is being made a requirement too.
You won’t be buying Earth Milk in the supermarket any time soon though – this is still very much in the trial stages, with no claims being made yet about carbon neutrality.
Bridget Whell, one of the farmers involved in the trial, said: “They reckon it takes about five years to get to where we’d like to be – i.e. not relying on chemical bagged nitrogen fertilisers at all. The soil is everything. Whatever you farm, ultimately it depends on soil – if we can get it right everything else blossoms on top of that.”
With eight billion people on Planet Earth, set to rise to at least 10 billion, we clearly have to take steps to address the impact of what we’re eating.
There will not be one single answer to the many issues posed by our food system. Unsettlingly sci-fi as they may sound, it is likely that in the future at least some of what we eat may be industrially-produced foods made by a process called precision fermentation (read more here) – or lab grown ‘real’ meat (which doesn’t involve farming or killing any animals) here.
In the meantime, our current consumption of industrially-farmed meat and dairy is still too high, with the average British person consuming over 60kg of meat per year – compared with just 3kg per year for the average Indian.
However, this is a significant fall compared with the amount of meat we ate 20 years ago. Up to 10% of people in the UK now identify as either vegan or vegetarian. Of course not everybody can or will be prepared to go this far, but it could make a huge difference if the remaining 90% reduced their meat and dairy intake – particularly of cheap, industrially-produced supermarket or takeaway meat products.
Treating animal products more as an occasional treat, and trying to buy meat and milk from local, regeneratively farmed, pasture-fed animals could have a really beneficial climate impact.
Growing crops to directly feed humans takes only a fraction of the land needed for farming animals. However, it’s important to recognise that vegetable farming can have harmful impacts too. Conventional plant growing (which also includes the ryegrass and other crops grown to feed livestock) often involves soil-damaging ploughing and use of artificial fertiliser – especially where animals are not used as part of the rotation to improve soil health.
However, there are increasing numbers of local growing initiatives across Cornwall and beyond now using permaculture and no-dig systems, working to produce healthy food while protecting the soil and its precious carbon – and it is not necessarily only small-scale, community-based operations looking much more seriously at these methods.
Riviera Produce, one of the biggest horticulture firms in the Duchy, growing on 8,000 acres, has also started embracing regenerative techniques over the past six years – with impressive results.
None of its fields are now left bare after harvest, but are planted with a varied cover crop of plants that feed pollinators and birds, replenish the soil and also hold it together to prevent flooding of neighbouring villages. The company has stopped ploughing, now using a strip tiller instead to keep soil disturbance to a minimum and keep carbon locked down into the soil. Wildlife and worms have flourished, as well as predator insects that feed on crop pests. As a result the company's use of expensive chemicals like fertilisers and pesticides has dropped significantly.
Many people are eating a lot more animal protein than is good for health (high consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, has been associated with higher incidence of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and certain cancers).
But is a diet with no animal protein at all any better?
The growing number of people cutting out animal products for either ethical or environmental reasons has led to a veritable profusion of plant-based burgers, sausages, milks, protein bars and other vegan convenience foods on sale in our shops. With big brands, supermarkets and fast food outlets all cashing in on people’s desire to go plant based, it’s very easy to be a bad vegan.
A common argument against these processed plant-based foods is that producing them consumes a lot of energy, whilst they may come from the other side of the world, be wrapped in plastic packaging, laden with salts, sugars, other additives and very low on nutrients and fibre.
However, it’s not actually necessary for vegans to eat any of these processed foods. And of course many non-vegans eat huge amounts of processed foods too. Breakfast cereals, crisps, biscuits, cakes, ready meals, takeaways and sweets – not to mention processed meats and ready meals – form a large part of many people’s diets.
In fact, over half of all the calories consumed in the UK now come from ultra processed foods – products with multiple unpronounceable ingredients that have undergone industrial interventions, such as extrusion, moulding and milling making them unrecognisable from their original form. Regular consumption of such foods has been implicated in health risks ranging from cancer and dementia.
Animal products are generally richer than plant foods in micronutrients such as iron, calcium, zinc, Vitamin A and particularly vitamin B12 (which is essential for proper functioning of the nervous system).
However, both the British Dietetic Association and NHS have stated that a well-balanced vegan diet is healthy, safe and nutritionally adequate for all stages of life including, pregnancy, lactation and infancy.
It is important to ensure you are getting all the nutrients you need though. A good starting place is the NHS information here:
It may seem daunting to have to cook healthy meat-free meals from scratch, but it’s probably much easier than you think, and there is a vast selection of plant-based recipe ideas online to save you time, energy and imagination.
There are many easy hacks to make low-cost, healthy meals in pretty much the same way as with meat – for example, swapping the mincemeat in bolognaise or lasagne for a tin of lentils, or using chickpeas to make a tuna replacement topping on jacket potatoes. A spoonful of Marmite or a sprinkle of paprika will give a deep, savoury flavour to meat-free dishes.
You can find some easy and low-cost plant-based recipes here:
Cookery book The Green Roasting Tin has both vegan and vegetarian dishes – all super easy meals that are thrown into a roasting tin and cooked in the oven.
Feel better/ deliciously ella – this app costs £2 a month (free trial at deliciouslyella.com). It but provides endless ideas for delicious, cheap and easy plant based meals.
While cutting down on animal products is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, a good compromise for health and planet (unless you are choosing a vegan diet for ethical reasons) may be to eat predominantly plant-based foods (locally-sourced as far as possible) with just a small amount of animal protein sourced from local, organic, regeneratively farmed systems.
Plant-based milks can be more expensive than their dairy equivalents, meaning they may not be accessible to everybody.
This might seem counterintuitive given the greater amount of inputs required to produce milk – from animal feed, housing and medication to the energy required for milking machines, refrigeration, pasteurisation and transport. However, dairy farming is heavily subsidised by the government.
With a large number of people now regularly using plant-based milks (according to The Grocer magazine, over 60% of households have bought plant milks at some point), the cost is coming down though.
Plant-based meat replacements can be relatively expensive too, as they may have required a large amount of processing, packaging and transportation.
Healthier whole foods like nuts and pulses are mostly imported too, but there are a growing number of projects attempting to grow protein-rich plant foods in the UK. As our climate changes it’s possible these will do better and better.
One of the first of these is Hodmedods (https://hodmedods.co.uk/), which has been successfully experimenting with pulses for some time. Their online shop sells British-grown lentils, chickpeas, and many more.
A number of Cornish initiatives are also experimenting with other unexpected crops from avocados to sunflowers. Is it possible that one day we will even have locally grown, low food miles soya?
Many livestock farmers are heavily reliant on taxpayer subsidies, and Animal Rebellion (plantbasedfuture.animalrebellion.org) is calling for the government to use this money to support farmers transition to a plant-based farming system instead.
One organisation, Farmers For Stock-Free Farming, has even been set up to support meat and dairy farmers who want to transition to animal-free agriculture.
Because only a small amount of land is needed to farm vegetables compared with meat, it is argued that, by drastically reducing the farm animal population, we could give most of the country’s farmland back to nature, drawing down carbon from the atmosphere and hugely restoring biodiversity.
The UK government’s advisory Climate Change Committee says that transitioning from grassland to forestland in England would increase the soil carbon stock by 25 tonnes per hectare – as well as the carbon that would be stored in the biomass of the trees themselves.
However, there are worries that large scale rewilding could end up with valuable farmland being planted with trees…. and lead to us needing to import even more of our food in the UK (we already import about 50% of what we eat).
This is an understandable concern, especially as climate impacts affecting other parts of the world that we currently import our food from could leave us increasingly vulnerable in future.
There’s a very good argument for us becoming much more self sufficient in food locally, so we certainly would need to avoid rewilding prime agricultural land.
However, to put this into a bit more context, right now we already have large areas of land in Cornwall and the UK devoted to non-food production purposes, such as golf courses and farms growing daffodils or crops for biofuel. These areas dwarf any proposed rewilding schemes.
Do we actually need all-out rewilding? Fighting climate change and food production do not need to be mutually exclusive.
The post-Brexit shake-up of farming subsidies was due to start rewarding farmers with ‘public funds for public goods’ – i.e. for climate and environment-friendly practices such as tree planting, wetland restoration, soil improvement and buffer zones to prevent flooding – all of which would boost biodiversity and draw down carbon while allowing farms to continue producing food.
This Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) could be a really exciting initiative, marking a total change from the basic payments system of subsidies previously used under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which simply paid farmers for the amount of land they kept in a farmable condition.
Unfortunately, due to recent political turmoil at the time of writing (December 2022) it is now unclear whether the ELMS scheme will still be rolled out, or if it is in what form.
Sign up with the Cornwall Food and Farming Group for its really useful and interesting quarterly Climate and Environment Newsletter.
The Sustainable Food Trust’s report Feeding Britain from the Ground Up explores the potential impacts on land use, food production and individual diets if the UK were to transition to sustainable farming based on biological principles.
The following are just a few of some really interesting books that to go deeper into learning about livestock farming, its positive or negative environment impacts and why we’ve ended up with the situation we’re in today – as well as varying views of what a better future for both food and nature may look like:
English Pastoral by James Rebanks
Small Farm Future by Chris Smaje
Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown
Regenesis by George Monbiot
Rebirding by Benedict Macdonald
As a project to document the facts around climate change in Cornwall, we take our own carbon footprint very seriously and aim to tread as lightly as possible.
We operate in accordance with an environmental policy that covers everything from our transport (which accounts for the bulk of our emissions) and banking to data storage and battery charging.