The Paris climate deal has been widely welcomed. It is the first time that all major countries on the planet have signed up to a climate change agreement with clearly defined goals and commitments, most notably to limit global warming to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. We must all hope this is honoured, and do everything we can, as individuals and as a global community, to ensure this is the case. There are also commitments to make $100 billion per year of funding available by 2020, though there is some concern already about whether this will all actually materialise, and whether this is enough.

The deal, though, represents a wonderful opportunity to advocate food systems which build soil carbon and use fossil fuels more sparingly through reduced inputs, better integration of crop and livestock production and better integration of all food production with local regions and communities.

Several campaign groups have however, criticised the COP21 conference for focusing on fossil fuels and not addressing emissions associated with food production. These take two distinct forms: those who believe livestock production is responsible for a high proportion of global warming and want to see big reductions in the number of ruminants in particular due to their methane emissions, and those who believe that changing farming methods to sequester more carbon into soils offers the best way to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, these two visions are not entirely compatible, at least not in the way in which they are generally articulated.

As countries start to grapple with the detail, leading up to the start of the agreement in 2020, food production will, however, inevitably come under the spotlight. The SFT has concerns that this will increase pressure for the further conversion of grassland with grazing animals to cropland to produce feed for intensive chickens, based on the narrow, but widely promoted assessment that because chickens do not produce methane, increasing chicken production and reducing beef and lamb production would be beneficial in terms of global warming.

The SFT does not accept this view, or many of the figures cited in support of it. Our analysis indicates that when all aspects are taken into account there is little difference between chicken and beef in greenhouse gas terms. But increasing chicken production at the expense of grazing livestock, as we have been doing for many years, is also a key driver of land degradation, which limit the potential to maintain high crop yields in future. This is because continuous crop production leads to soil degradation, whereas grassland can restore damaged soils and make them productive for the future. As Policy Director Richard Young explained to Anna Hill on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today this week, the SFT has a different take to most other organisations on these issues. Listen to the interview below, which begins at 9:15.

Photograph: Steph French

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