Cornish fishermen have got a lot on their plates – from worries about weather and Brexit to stocks, quota and overfishing. But Plenty More Fish? lifts the lid on the many ways in which climate change is also affecting the local fishing industry, and is likely to do so much more in future.
Narrated by fisherman Ben Church, the film speaks to fishermen and experts who tell us about everything from the changing fish species entering our waters to the challenges of stormier weather – and even the possibility of crab and lobster shells dissolving as our waters become more acidic.
But it also looks at more positive aspects, such as inventive solutions to fight climate change while tackling Cornwall’s invasive oyster problem, and the possibilities for zero carbon fishing boats.
Matt Slater, who once worked himself as a fisherman and is passionate about all things marine, talks in more depth about the problem of invasive species such as Pacific oysters, taking advantage of the changing conditions in our seas, and potential future changes for fishermen.
Passionate oyster protector Chris Ranger talks here at much more length about the plight of Cornwall’s native oysters and his struggles to restore the fishery
Gus talks here in more detail about some of the challenges facing Cornish fishermen in efforts to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.
A longer interview with fisherman Johnny Murt talking about various environmental issues around fishing – and whether shifting wind patterns could even be leading to changes in Padstow’s notoriously dangerous Doom Bar
Hear more about the Hatchery’s work, how lobsters worldwide are being affected by climate change and ocean acidification – and some extraordinary facts about these incredible creatures!
Listen to Rachel Turner talking in greater detail about the research that has been conducted into fishermen’s perceptions of and responses to the stormier weather expected as our climate changes.
In a wide-ranging interview Steve Simpson tells us much more about the impact of climate change on the world’s fisheries, why everyone concerned about the marine environment should be more adventurous and eat local – and dealing with eco-grief as a scientist.
Listen to landscape gardener Ewen Abram-Moore talking about how he ended up combining his two passions – oysters and gardening.
Hear a longer interview with fisherman Ben Eglinton talking about the changes fishermen are seeing as our climate changes – and his hopes that there may one day be a quota for the bluefin tuna now moving into our waters.
Hear Tom telling us more about PML’s work at the Atmospheric Observation Laboratory at Penlee Point, and the evidence it is finding of changes in many of the Earth’s greenhouse gases and other pollutants – it’s not all about carbon dioxide.
Plymouth Marine Laboratory would like to thank the Mount Edgcumbe Estate (who grant access to the research site), Trinity House (who own the hut where all the research equipment is housed), and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), who fund the work being done there.
Even though fish generally has a lower carbon footprint than farmed meat, there are still many things you can do it you eat fish to minimise the climate and environmental impact.
An amazing 80% of the fish we eat in the UK is from just a few species, called the ‘Big Five’ – cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns. Only one of these, haddock, is caught locally.
Eating the Big Five can have some serious and surprising climate-related impacts (see more below), so we can make a big difference by choosing locally-caught fish and seafood, caught using low impact methods.
A brilliant place to find out all about what is best to eat and most sustainable, where to buy it, and great recipes for cooking it, is the Cornwall Wildlife Trust Good Seafood Guide which also provides details for buying directly from some of the most conservation-conscious and sustainable fishermen working around our coast.
Oysters and shellfish
For other ideas about how to help protect our marine environment and species more generally please see the ‘What you can do’ section for our first film, Under the Surface.
Devon-based Ecomotus, a company run by retired fisherman Adrian Bartlett, has recently gained official approval for a system that can reduce fishing industry (and other) emissions by 85%, with a 10-15% fuel saving.
Yes, salmon comes from Scotland, but all of it is farmed – in fact there is almost no wild salmon now caught in the UK.
Climate change is having a major impact on wild salmon, with only around 5% of the fish leaving our rivers each year estimated to return to spawn. Some of the climate-related pressures facing them include more intense rains washing sediment into rivers, covering the gravel they need to spawn on, to warming waters meaning they have to travel far further to find feeding grounds.
So salmon farming is now big business, worth around £1 billion per year, and Scottish salmon is flown all over the world.
Salmon farms have environmental impacts from the antibiotics used on the fish to prevent disease to the build-up of feed, chemicals and faeces causing pollution problems in the sea lochs where the fish are farmed. About 20% of farmed salmon die each year from disease and parasites.
To try to limit the amount of chemicals used, millions of wild ballan wrasse (a wild ‘cleaner fish’) are now caught from the wild, many around the coasts of Cornwall and Devon, and sent to Scotland to eat the lice that infest the farmed salmon – and also infect wild salmon as they swim past the farms to reach their spawning grounds. Ballan wrasse reproduce only slowly and this fishery is still poorly regulated.
Up to 20% of all wild fish caught worldwide are ground up into fishmeal to make feed for farmed fish like salmon. However, new initiatives are now looking at farming insects to turn into fish food. Insects such as meal worms can be farmed with far less environmental impact than producing fishmeal.
Cod is now caught much further north and shipped to the UK.
Recent declines in North Sea cod populations, due in part to climate change, have resulted in fewer juvenile cod surviving to adulthood.
Having fewer adult fish makes sustainable fishing of cod more difficult, and as a result the Marine Stewardship Council stopped certifying North Sea cod as sustainable in 2019.
Sustainably caught tuna has been estimated as having a larger climate effect than any other protein source, except beef.
Not only is tuna caught far from our shores, but tuna vessels that now use more sustainable methods such as rod and line (to try to minimise bycatch of animals such as dolphins and seabirds) consume about three to four times as much fuel as boats using large purse seine nets, which can gather more fish in a shorter time.
It has been estimated that it takes three times as much fuel to catch a tonne of tuna than it did 25 years ago.
Nearly all the prawns and shrimp consumed in the UK are fished or farmed in Asia.
Shrimp farms tend to occupy coastal land that used to be covered in mangroves. Draining mangrove swamps to make way for aquaculture is even more harmful to the atmosphere than felling rainforest to provide pasture for cattle – meaning a kilo of farmed shrimp produces almost four times the greenhouse gas emissions of a kilo of beef.
Meanwhile, wild crustacean fisheries worldwide grew by 60% between 1990 and 2011 to account for 22% of overall CO2 emissions from fishing – despite making up just 6% of all the tonnage landed.
The amount of carbon dioxide emitted by fishing vessels globally rose by 28% over the same period too – largely due to this increase in shellfish fishing.
Shrimp trawlers can also pull as much as 20kg of bycatch from the sea for every kilo of shrimp, and Asian shrimp fishing has been associated with serious human rights abuses.
Cornwall Wildlife Trust - Good Seafood Guide
Fal Oyster -Saving Ester the Oyster project
Carbon and oysters (detailed study results due out later in 2021)
Lobsters and climate change - Lobsters in USA
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.