On our doorstep

Climate change is no longer a theoretical concept; it is already here. Carina Perkins says meat businesses need to take immediate action

Climate change is no longer a distant prediction or a theory in a book. It is a living, breathing reality that threatens to permanently alter the platform of the Earth as we know it. Last year, a string of disasters - including floods across Africa, south Asia and North Korea, severe droughts in southern Africa and a category-five hurricane in Nicaragua - were hailed as a climate change "mega disaster" by the UN's emergency relief coordinator Sir John Holmes. The diplomat warned that dire predictions about the impact of global warming on humanity were already coming true. "This is here and now; this is with us already," he said.

Although climate change has been on government agendas for some time, it has now become a number one priority. In December 2007, all Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) converged in Bali to discuss a comprehensive action plan leading on from the Kyoto targets, which expire in 2012. With world leaders increasingly under pressure to reduce their carbon outputs, the UK government has drafted a new Climate Change Bill, which was entered into Parliament in November last year. The Bill sets in legislation a target of

reduction in carbon emissions of at least 60% by 2050, against a 1990 baseline. When it comes into force later this year, it will put climate change adaption on a statutory footing for the first time in UK history.

"Currently, most businesses are exempt from formal mandatory carbon constraints, but it will only be a matter of time before all businesses become carbon-constrained under government legislation," says Gary Worby, a

consultant at EnergyQuote.

The government, keen to meet its ambitious targets, recently carried out a study of food and farming policy in the UK, looking at the sustainability of food production. The study, carried out by the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, found that agriculture contributes around 7% of the UK's total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is responsible for 37% of the UK's total methane emissions and 67% of the UK's total nitrous oxide emissions. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions currently fall outside UK domestic targets for carbon dioxide (C02) and are beyond the scope of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and other carbon pricing mechanisms. The report recommends that environmental policies, such as carbon pricing, need to be applied to the full food chain. It points out that as this happens, "the non-CO2 GHG emissions associated with farming will receive more attention from policy-makers than they have had to date." With the meat industry likely to be under increasing scrutiny from policy-makers in the future, businesses would do well to start assessing their environmental performance now.

Pressure to reduce the future environmental impact of meat will not just come from the government. Recently, scientists and environmental campaigners have joined forces in their criticism of meat production. Speaking at the Meat & Livestock Commission Conference earlier this year, Tara Garnett, of the Food Climate Research Network, said: "Global meat consumption is

growing rapidly. If the developing countries were to consume at

developed levels, it would be

environmentally catastrophic."

Several scientific reports on the environmental implications of meat production have made their way into media headlines of late, including one from eminent Japan scientists, which concluded that producing 1kg of beef results in more emissions than going for a three-hour drive while leaving all the lights on at home. Anti-meat lobbies have seized on such reports and, while it is unlikely that consumers will give up meat altogether, there is growing consumer awareness about how food can affect the environment. Terms such as 'food miles' and 'carbon footprints' are now a regular part of consumers' vocabulary, and producers cannot ignore demands for environmentally responsible food. "Green marketing can give you a big business advantage," says Ben Leonello, senior consultant for ADAS Environmental. "You can promote your business in terms of your environmental performance and even develop green product lines, such as carbon-neutral sausages."

Supermarkets have been forced to compete on carbon credentials, and many are now making environmental demands to their suppliers. A recent survey by food business advisor Grant Thornton revealed that just over a third of UK food suppliers had to give an account of their environmental performance when tendering for supply contracts with leading supermarkets. Nearly half (46%) had been proactively approached by the major multiples to discuss ways to make their trading greener.

Ian Carr, food and agribusiness expert at Grant Thornton, said: "Showcasing environmental credentials as part of the tendering process to win contracts to supply supermarkets is becoming more frequent and symptomatic of a substantial change that is ongoing within the grocery supply chain."

With major questions hanging over the sustainability of meat production in the face of a rapidly growing world population and a changing climate, the industry can no longer afford to ignore the implications of global warming. The environment is no longer something for businesses to worry about in the future - the implications are here and the industry must act now.

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