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Does farming have any meaningful impact on climate change?

James Halliwell
4 min read
AUTHOR: James Halliwell
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Cow

The stars of sustainability were out last week. Elon Musk, Rishi Sunak, Greta Thunberg and a terrifying army of clocks all took centre stage as the sustainability debate lurched about again. 

The PM’s eco-credentials were the subject of an evisceration attempt by Zac Goldsmith, the minister for the international environment, in a resignation letter delivered just before the weekend.

The eco-MP suggested Sunak is “simply uninterested” in the environment, and slammed him for choosing to skip a “critically important environment summit in Paris” to party with “a media baron”.

If that’s a fair assessment, it’s an interesting insight for a food and drink industry which continues to make huge efforts at vast expense to be interested in sustainability, and keeps calling for the government to step up and properly support its efforts. 

Then again, Sunak does have other pressing matters to attend to. And he may think ominous warnings over the immediate future take precedent over ominous warnings about what might happen in decades. Though actually time is ticking, according to a ‘climate clock’ unveiled by the King and the Mayor of London last week.

This dystopian clock says the UK has six years and 19 days left until the earth heats up more than 1.5C (above pre-industrial levels). After that, climate scientists say tipping points will be breached, and catastrophe will surely follow. Think floods, wildfires, droughts, and mass starvation due to a global collapse in food security. 

Meaningful impact

An unnerving 150 clocks were unveiled up and down the UK just as time did run out for Greta Thunberg’s 2018 tweeted (since deleted) prediction that ‘climate change will wipe out all of humanity unless we stop using fossil fuels over the next five years’. Gleeful tweets pointed out that humanity has survived, and suggested some high-profile environmentalists exaggerate the gravity of the situation. 

Then to spice things up further, Elon Musk tweeted about the environmental impact of the food and drink industry, saying: “Important to note that what happens on Earth’s surface (e.g. farming) has no meaningful impact on climate change.”

Really? Agriculture, farming, or indeed anything that happens on the earth’s surface, like deforestation, has no meaningful impact on the environment?

This is big news for the food and drink industry, and in particular it’s going to be a huge relief for farmers. Not to mention the humiliation those poor cows have suffered over the last few years. And the deforestation industry will be thrilled, it’s unfairly earned a dreadful reputation. 

Elon Musk Tweet

Of course Elon’s opinion does run counter to the popular narrative, but then again it is Elon Musk saying it. He operates two multi-billion sustainability businesses in Tesla and Space X, one of which has revolutionised a car industry previously focused on fossil fuels and the other is focused on the sustainability of the human race, no less. So you’d imagine he knows a thing or two about sustainability. Or is he absolutely, categorically, woefully, wrong?

Maybe more clarity on ‘meaningful’ or ‘surface’ is needed. Or maybe any suggestion that the way we treat our immediate environment has no meaningful impact on our wider environment is a reductive non-starter that can be tossed on the trash pile of misinformation and disinformation which has never been more prevalent or convincing at any point since the internet began. 

Still, even if you vehemently disagree, tweets like that do matter. Twitter may not be the best place to have a reasoned debate about anything, but Musk’s tweet was engaged with and amplified to a huge extent. It will have some level of influence, just as Greta Thunberg’s tweets do. 

Zac Goldsmith even broke off from his political travails to reply to Elon Musk. He politely described it as an “odd take”. And maybe it is. But if the sentiment of Musk’s tweet was that there are more damaging industries for environmentalists to focus on than food, there may also be some sympathy for it within the farming and the ingredients industry. Especially if Sunak’s government isn’t really making it a priority either. 

To find out more about Sustainable Food Week click here.

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