5 August 2019

Why industrial agriculture is crucial to fighting climate change

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What poor countries really need more of is supermarkets.

That’s the conclusion to draw from the latest leaked report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Of course, it’s not what the usual environmentalist suspects are telling us the world needs more of. Instead the response to the leak has been the usual mantra of eating less meat and changing farming methods with the likes of the Soil Association and Greenpeace pushing a counter-productive agenda. Plus ça change.

The title of the report, which will be officially released soon, is ‘Climate Change and Land’. According to the Guardian humans use some 72% of the earth’s available, non-iced, land. In order to counter climate change, farming habits must change. Entirely true so far.

However, Greenpeace insist this means less industrial farming – which is quite the opposite of the truth – and there’s a well-oiled lobby telling anyone who will listen that organic is the answer.

The counter-intuitive truth is that to help combat climate change we need more industrial farming and less organic. The reason being that if we want to save us much land as possible for wildlife, trees and all that good stuff, we should be as economical as possible in our use of land.

That’s where industrial farming comes in. Fertilisers and other technical innovations increase the yield per acre of land, allowing us to use less of the earth’s surface to produce more food. If we’re concerned about food, land and climate change then using more land by going organic is entirely and completely the wrong strategy.

What’s more, it’s hard to reconcile having fewer methane-belching animals around if organic is the future, given that manure is a key fertiliser.

Calls to eat less meat are also increasingly commonplace, yet well-managed pasture can absorb more carbon into the soil than even forests.

On the plus side, the IPCC report does advocate no-till methods, which is great because they are actually industrial methods that require herbicides.

However, the biggest point – and one which we can all agree on – is the importance of reducing food waste. That will alleviate that pressure upon the land  and leave more for forests, wildlife and gawping at nature.

This means that everyone, not just us lucky people in the rich countries, needs supermarkets.

For, as the Food and Agriculture Organisation has been saying for some time now, as much as 50% of food gets wasted between farm and fork. Sure, some of that is buy-one-get-one-free deals that decay at the back of the fridge uneaten, but that’s a tiny part of the whole. So too is wastage in rich world agriculture. The real villain when it comes to food waste is the up to 50% of food that rots in poor countries.

In this context, it’s worth thinking about what a supermarket really is. It’s certainly not just a big shop that kills off the livelihoods of the High Street. It is the logistics chain which takes and preserves the food from the farm to our forks. Places which have supermarkets waste very much less food than those that don’t. It stands to reason, therefore, that the more large-scale food-retailing we have in the form of supermarkets, the less waste there will be.

This is really another version of a time-honoured argument about the value of technology. Bear in mind that to an economist a technology simply means any method of organising. In that sense a supermarket is a technology just as much as a mobile phone is.

They have different uses and effects to be sure, but they’re both – as with railways or the 5-2-3 formation – technologies. And what matters to our lives and possibly the planet is that we use the appropriate technology for the task at hand.

All of which is a challenge to those who agitate for changing methods of food production to fight climate change. When Greenpeace start calling for more intensive, industrial farming and the expansion of supermarkets into the developing world, we’ll know they are serious.

At the moment it looks far more as though certain parts of the green movement are hijacking the problem to push their own irrelevant – or even counter-productive – agenda. Because, ultimately, to be against industrial agriculture and advanced retailing is to be pro-climate change.

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Tim Worstall works for the Continental Telegraph and the Adam Smith Institute.