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Climate Change & Food

Towards a low-carbon food system


With a busy climate change policy and legislative agenda, we should not be short of opportunities to push food up the climate change agenda, both here in Scotland and internationally.

The Scottish Government is currently drafting a new Climate Change Bill, and we encourage everyone to take part in our campaign to push for an ambitious Bill. Our key asks for the Bill are 1) a nitrogen budget (see our briefing here), 2) targets for organic farming (see our #ScotOrganicTarget campaign here), 3) targets for agroforestry, 4) reporting on consumption-related GHG emissions.


Our food system contributes 30% of the UK’s total consumption-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This includes emissions from land use change abroad for the purpose of producing food or feed for the UK’s food system [1]. Direct emissions – excluding global land use change – account for approximately 20% of our climate footprint. The graph below shows how direct emissions are distributed along the food system.

Breakdown of food chain GHG emissions in the UK. Agriculture accounts for 40%, followed by food manufacturing and transport each at 12%, home food related is 9%, packaging and retail are each 7%, and retail, catering, fertiliser manufacture, and waste disposal are at 7%, 6%, 5% and 2% respectively

What can make our food system more climate friendly?The Climate Change talks in Paris resulted in a global agreement that countries should curb emissions as to try and limit global warming to 1,5 degrees Celsius.

Research demonstrated that a 70% reduction to food-related GHG emissions by 2050 is possible. It would require considerable political will and a significant change in food policy. It would not be easy, but it is possible and desirable.

We must change how we produce and consume food, and what food we consume. This involves both technological and behavioural change. The former includes improving the management of each stage of the food chain and adopting more efficient and renewable technologies; the latter includes shifting diets away from livestock products and towards more cereals, pulses, fruit and veg, as well as drastically cutting down food waste.

Individual or collective actions by food producers and consumers can make a big difference. But we can also as citizens demand that our representatives in Parliament and Government take bold and positive action on food and climate change. Nourish’s main policy asks with regards to climate change are the following:

  1. Establishing a Nitrogen Budget. Excessive use of nitrogen fertilisers and poor management of manure pollutes our air and water and results in high levels of nitrous oxide (NO2) emissions [2]. Better accounting is the first step towards more efficient management. A Nitrogen Budget could help sharpen up the way we make, use and recycle nitrogen in Scotland [3]. See our briefing here.
  2. Boosting the organic sector in Scotland. The Soil Association calculated that organic farming can reduce agriculture’s emissions by 23%. Fertiliser manufacturing alone accounts for 5% of direct food system emissions. We want the Scottish Government to increase support and incentives for farmers wishing to convert to organic farming, and we want more organic food in public kitchens
  3. Integrating agroforestry in how we farm. Agroforestry has the potential to sequester considerable amounts of carbon in the soils. We want the Scottish Government to provide support and advice to farmers to help them adopt agroforestry measures.
  4. Cutting down food waste. The Scottish Government already has an ambitious target – a 33% reduction in food waste going to landfill by 2025 – but is not currently implementing enough ambitious measures to meet that target. Much more should be done to prevent avoidable food waste through awareness raising, improved labelling, and smart regulation. And at the end of the day, all remaining food waste should be processed adequately, with a 0% landfill rate.
  5. Promoting sustainable diets. Food Standards Scotland recently became independent and is doing very good work at promoting healthy diets. We want the Scottish Parliament to increase its remit to also promote sustainable, low-carbon diets.

How do we get there?

There are various opportunities to raise the stakes for food and farming in climate change policy on the 2016-2017 horizon.

First, the Scottish Government is reviewing their 3rd Report on Policy and Proposals (RPP3), commonly called the Climate Action Plan, after the Parliament scrutinised it. This Plan is a compulsory requirement under the current Climate Change (Scotland) Act (2009), and will set out the steps the Government will take to further reduce emissions. With Stop Climate Chaos Scotland (SCCS), Nourish called on the Government to adopt a package of compulsory low-carbon measures for farming, to be implemented from 2018. We’re also campaigning for a target of 5% of region 1 agricultural land to be in organic management by 2020.

Second, the Scottish Government is currently drafting a new Climate Change Bill to set long term targets and policy direction. We are campaigning with SCCS for a nitrogen budget to be included in the Bill. More information here.

Finally, the Paris Climate Change Agreement has entered into force in 2016. In November 2017 there’s the annual Climate Change Summit, COP23, in Bonn. Food and agriculture was deemed by many civil society organisations to not be high enough on the agenda of the Paris Summit; will Bonn do better?

If you would like to get involved in Nourish’s activities on food and climate change get in touch with Olga (organic target) or Celia (nitrogen budget).


[1] Research estimated that global land use change emissions account for 40% of the emissions embedded in UK consumed food.

[2] Atmospheric concentrations of NO2 are much lower than of CO2, but its global warming potential over 100 years is 300 times that of Carbon Dioxide. The good news is that because NO2’s lifetime is “only” 121 years, if we cut emissions now, atmospheric concentrations could go back to pre-industrial levels by the mid 2100s, unlike CO2 which will stay in the atmosphere for centuries.

[3] What would a Nitrogen Budget look like? Nourish Director Pete Ritchie first discussed the idea in the blog A Nitrogen Budget for Scotland?. For a more detailed explanation of the nitrogen issue and of the N budget, see this blog: Climate Change Bill – Blog 2: A Nitrogen Budget