Event Report: What’s cooking? The planet, soon enough

Attention Conservation Notice: MCFly co-editor Marc Hudson is seduced by good food, good research [about food, in this instance] and lucid approachable academics. First a bit about the report, then the launch event.

“The key message from this report is the diversity of potential scenarios. There is overwhelming evidence that the climate is changing; farmers are in the front line of this change. Nobody, however, can know the precise outcome. Hence, farmers and others in the food chain need to not only reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, but to develop systems, technologies and methodologies that allow them to adapt to the particular way in which climate disruption manifests itself in their region. Policy-makers need to put in place policies that are flexible enough to enable the food chain to respond to whichever scenario emerges over the coming decades.”
Andrew Rigg, Farmer, Hill View Farm

So says one of the people this bunch of (social and physical) scientists talked to while creating this report “What’s cooking? Adaptation and mitigation in the UK food system.” It was “funded by the Sustainable Consumption Institute to explore how the UK food system may develop and change in response to futures bounded by more or less extreme climate impacts and emission cuts.”  It “presents findings based on an interdisciplinary systems level scenario approach designed specifically to address complex societal problems.”

What does that last sentence mean? It means that smart people from more than one academic sub-culture asked a bunch of other smart people who are tackling problems today to help them come up with some possible ways things might turn out and what we might do if the some of the excrement contacts the air-conditioning blades (‘scenarios’).  Scenarios are not predictions –  “it will be one of a) b) or c)” –  but rather are tools for thinking with.  (1)

In this case, they’ve looked at a not-very-pleasant-for-most-people kind of future (2 degrees above pre-Industrial temperatures) and a really-extremely-unpleasant-for-everyone-and-everything-except-maybe-the-determined-cockroaches-and-a-few-rather-hardy-lizards kind of future (4 degrees).

To investigate how different scenarios may play out within the food system – from consumption to production – two contrasting climate futures are considered. One where mitigation and adaptation are commensurate with avoiding global temperatures breaching the 2°C threshold associated with ‘dangerous interference with the climate system’, and the other in a world aiming to avoid more than 4°C of warming. The analysis is framed by cumulative emissions, as opposed to long-term emission reduction targets, and takes a consumption-based approach to greenhouse gas emissions accounting.

One of the secret joys of scenario-building is coming up with the catchy names.  The SCI lot have done themselves proud –

“Five scenarios are developed, two in line with 2°C futures and three 4°C futures. Each is named after a typical meal: Bubble & Squeak & Mash & Banger (2°C), Pasta & Pesto, Chicken Tikka Masala & Lab Chops (4°C). ” [Yes, lab chops, not lamb chops.]

Key take home messages include –

Rising food demand will elevate greenhouse gas emissions…
It is important to see the full picture…
“The consumption-based accounting approach – which includes the emissions embedded in imports but excludes those from exports – is particularly appropriate for the food system because a high proportion of emissions are associated with the consumption of imported products (29% compared with a national figure of 21% for the UK).”
Targets will be missed without integrating adaptation & mitigation…
Growth in consumption needs to be tackled to avoid 2°C…
Information provision – necessary but not sufficient..
“A common response to addressing climate change through consumers is to provide information, in the form of marketing. However, whilst the level of knowledge may be a necessary condition of low carbon behavioural change, it is not sufficient as even those that are both knowledgeable and motivated face structural and cultural barriers to change. Given the deeply socially embedded and cultural nature of food and eating, information provision alone will not necessarily change food choices.”

So, this 60 page report was launched today, and MCFly was invited…

Here’s a blow-by-blow, no holds barred account of the event…

Professor Rod Coombs, (Deputy President and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of The University of Manchester) started it off, outlining a bit about the Sustainable Consumption Institute’s work and its various “flagships” (see our interview with Alistair Ulph for more info).

Then the project’s lead Dr Alice Bows  talked about “Framing the SCI’s Food System Scenarios: Confronting the physical evidence.”  She pointed out that if you had low mitigation (cutting emissions) then you were going to have high adaptation costs, and that “no climate change” future is no longer an option. (x) She added that in a 4 degree world agricultural yields will be a lot lower, that what we do in the next few years around emissions really matters, and that “we need to get off the curve [of ever increasing emissions] very soon…”

Next up Dr Mirjam Röder  talked about “Reconciling food security and emissions in a changing climate.” She outlined the three challenges the report looks at – increased food demand, the imperative to reduce emissions and the need to adapt to climate impacts.  She used wheat as an example, looking at the non-carbon costs associated with its production (who knew nitrogen fertilizer could be so bad?). At one point she baldly stated that they’d not looked at the 4 degree situation for the UK because they simply don’t know how the soil and micro-organisms will react/interact.

Finally Dr Carly McLachlan outlined “Consumer Responses to the SCI Food System Scenarios. The work had looked at talking to people in Greater Manchester, on the basis of postcodes (a proxy for wealth), split into all male and all female groups.  They’d fired questions not just about climate, but food in general, around seasonality, meat consumption, communal eating and genetic modification (among other topics). There is, unsurprisingly, a lot of confusion of seasonality [permanent global summertime, much?]. A lot of the women said their men-folk wouldn’t accept any real decrease in meat consumption (as in ‘if there’s not a dead animal on me plate, it’s not a meal!’). The biggest surprise to them was the intense dislike of the idea of communal eating, which, focus groupies thought, would aggravate social problems rather than alleviate them…

There were a few Questions of Clarification (nitrogen, tipping points, adaptation even possible, vegetarianism) and then Mike Childs, the science bod at Friends of the Earth had a fifteen minute slot.  They welcome the report, “only the start”… environmental problems [long list, all of which would be familiar to participants, and could have gone on a handout], social problems… what’s needed…. quibble with the mash and banger scenario because of too much reliance on tech, too much fish…

Right, I am a paid-up FoEr, and what I would have loved from the one campaigner person we had on all morning (between the academics [bless them] and the industry bod) was something about

– What are the barriers to achieving this good stuff?
– Why hasn’t enough of the right stuff happened? Why isn’t it happening?
– What have “we” been doing wrong?
– Do we really want to be standing here giving the same plaintive-yet-confident claims in another ten years, as we doubtless were ten years ago?
– What are the game-changers, given that if we keep playing this game, we are all going to fry/starve.

Rather than the usual litany of isn’t it a sitty shituation we find ourselves in and these [insert abstractions in the absence of historical/political actors] should happen.  Just sayin’.

Finally, Louise Neville, the sustainability officer at Quorn Foods
had the industry slot.  [Disclaimer – I had quorn sausages in my veggie fry-up this morning]. She was fine.  At pains to not claim Quorn is The Solution. “Four degrees scenarios quite uncomfortable reading” etc.

Plenary Discussion and coffee

Even though we went straight into “comment tennis”, there were a bunch of good questions and comments, including

– around nutritional impact of the scenarios (also, people aren’t going to drop dead of protein deficiency if they reduce their meat consumption)
– around what policy tools needed to avoid regressive (i.e. hit the poor) taxes and prices rises. Answer “it’s tricky”
– let’s look at how we got to this – overproduction of food, led to innovation pathways that have created unhelpful actions/infrastructure. Geopolitics ignored – countries won’t sit around for ever letting UK/US have enormous land footprint.
– The head of the Vegetarian Society tried to get any of the panellists to say “vegetarianism is good for the planet.”  There was a certain amount of very ngo-like (cough cough) waffling at this point.
– best estimate of the meat  reduction Manchester citizens would accept? “Twenty percent was ‘acceptable’ [at least verbally – the implication was the respondents’ body-language told another story] 70% not so much.”

Smaller table discussions; three of them. One on agriculture, one on emissions accounting that moved on to look at how to get research bridging the gap between policy-makers, industry and the public.

[At this point it is worth noting that nobody from Manchester City Council – either elected members or officers – were present in the room. But of course, it’s a very long way from the Town Hall/First Street to Manchester Museum.  They could at least have sent the office junior to fly the flag briefly, no?]

Alice Bows wrapped up by outlining some further research opportunities, and then implying that the time had come to [in MCFly’s terms] run up the jolly roger, and start kicking out the jams.  More prosaically, “if we’re confident in our results, we should go against the existing orthodoxies.”

Rod Coombes then returned to the stage to endorse Alice Bows’ comments, saying that individual academics could (and should) take a stance on policy issues if their evidence was of a very high standard.  This may, conceivably, be the beginnings of an academic cri de couer [though MCFly has heard that before].  Time will tell…

Lunch was
a) yummy for the vegetarians (and probably the carnivores).
b) rubbish for the vegans – “salad again?” as two of them said, (one via text). A slight irony about a meeting all about food and responsible choices being so unwelcoming to the people who have made the lowest-carbon choices of all?
c) there was too much food (because some people rudely failed to inform the organisers that they weren’t, after all, coming).  So, next time, bring tupperware! UPDATE 16 July 2012 – We’ve been told “Surplus food went to the SCI/Tyndall football team – so nothing wasted!”

MCFly says: Who reads 60 page reports? They must be written (we’re gonna do one for Steady-State Manchester), but that’s only a fraction of the total work wot needs doing.  The problem the academics face is that the ‘bridging’ institutions – the trades unions, the WEAs, the campaigning groups etc – no longer exist [insert glib phrase about the death of social democracy here]. The academics have not the time, the skills or the resources to be the bridges…

Details of the speakers
Professor Rod Coombs “became Deputy President and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of The University of Manchester on 1 August 2010. In this role, Professor Coombs will support the President and Vice-Chancellor across the full-range of functions and responsibilities involved in the management and direction of the University.
“He was previously Vice-President for Research, Innovation and Economic Development, and has international experience of innovation, technological change and commercial development.”

Dr Alice Bows “is Theme Leader for Climate Change and Carbon at the SCI and Senior Lecturer in Energy & Climate Change within MACE. She is currently PI on three projects: the SCI’s Flagship Project exploring coupled mitigation and adaptation scenarios, an SCI project on shipping emissions and an EPSRC funding project entitled – High Seas.”

Dr Carly McLachlan is “a lecturer in climate change, sustainability and project management within the School of Mechanical Aerospace and Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester, associate director of Tyndall Manchester and responsible for the Energy Programme within the national Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.”

Dr Mirjam Röder “undertakes research within the SCI’s Flagship Project Climate change mitigation and adaptation in the UK food system.
“Her research interests focus on global adaptation and mitigation strategies for agriculture and food systems, food security, trade and sustainability issues. Apart from her interest in climate change research Mirjam has a strong background in agriculture, development and gender studies.”

(1) It’s a technique that, famously, helped Shell go from small-fry to big-fry during and after the 1973 Oil Shock, and was also used in the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa.  The only problem with scenarios, from MCFly’s point of view, is that most of the time, most politicians will cherry-pick them for short-term ammunition and throw all the hard work and hard thinking on the slush pile, for (possible) later retrieval.

(2) I fear we are now at the stage of “high mitigation-high adaptation” – that’s what happens when you ignore all the warnings and pleadings from people who know about these things…

I know and like some of the academics involved in this research. But if it or the event had been rubbish, I’d have given it a kicking like this, which also involved academics I like.


About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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2 Responses to Event Report: What’s cooking? The planet, soon enough

  1. Nobody from the http://www.soilassociation.org/, who are trying to engage with Government and Industry to adopt low carbon methods in food production? Also, The Green Party has recently amended it Food and Agricultural policy which they also might of found extremely helpful: http://policy.greenparty.org.uk/fa

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