Changing your diet to mitigate climate change is not enough: real change requires modifications in public policies and more support for a transition in the Spanish agro sector

The International Institute for Law and the Environment (IIDMA) recalls the warnings of the latest IPCC report, “Climate Change and Land” and warns that recommendations on reducing meat consumption and changing diets must be supported by urgent public policies and not be based exclusively on the final decisions of the citizens. The agricultural sector is the third largest in terms of CO2 equivalent emissions in Spain, with 10.6% of the total of emissions, according to data from 2016. Thus, in addition to being affected by climate change, it could also be a source of solutions to mitigate it if these emissions are reduced. One of the solutions with less diffusion so far, as the report of the IPCC indicates, is the change of the food system. But this change must also take place at the productive level, something that would have impacts on productivity and competitiveness of this sector in Spain in the future.

The European Project EUKI, coordinated in Spain by IIDMA, promotes, among other things, a transition from a model of intensive agriculture and livestock farming, based on maximum profit and which favors intermediaries, to an extensive model, with lower production but higher quality, and lower environmental and social impact, as well as greater structural economic benefits in the medium and long term, according to the project’s specialists. The adoption of public policies along these lines would help mitigate climate change and, in addition, would further protect the agricultural sector from its impacts.

Heat waves, extreme weather events, or lack of water would make Spain especially vulnerable, and the lack of confidence and awareness of the benefits of a change of model are causing damage that could be irreversible. Spain is the second EU member state in terms of meat consumption per capita, and the current model of meat production, whose consumption continues to increase, nevertheless coincides with the reduction in the number of farms. This means that the sector is being progressively industrialized through intensive livestock projects, without emphasizing the quality of the meat or the negative impacts on the environment, economy, society or health. Furthermore, small farms are particularly disadvantaged by the lack of investment, aid or increasingly restrictive requirements.

Encouraging consumption decisions based on a change in diet that favors a reduction in meat consumption, as recommended by the IPCC, would have a very positive impact on reducing livestock populations and their GHG emissions. But these measures must be supported by public policies that involve increased funding, political commitment, the removal of bureaucratic obstacles, and the assessment of environmental and health impacts that favor the transition to an extensive production model. In addition, it is important to consolidate specific marketing channels for extensive livestock products that guarantee a fair profit margin for farmers.

Thus, the work from a legal point of view is fundamental. A large part of the urgent actions must focus on boosting the environmental ambition of the final texts of the national climate and energy plans (PNIEC), the Climate Change and Energy Transition Law and of European policies such as the CAP. Another pillar of change would be the promotion of knowledge-based solutions, with the implementation of measures such as the promotion of biogas plants for the treatment of livestock waste or the optimization of fodder, among others.

The Spanish agricultural sector stands out at an international level, but if effective solutions are not proposed to reduce its emissions in order to tackle climate change, the damage the sector will suffer will be irreversible. Reducing the demand for meat could favor the recovery and development of extensive and ecological farms, whose current low profitability is due to the arrival on the market of large quantities of low cost and low quality meat, together with distribution channels that leave most of the economic benefits in the hands of intermediaries. Extensive models place less emphasis on profitability and increased production as the sole objective, and consider elements such as environmental impact, animal welfare, or higher quality meat” says Massimiliano Patierno, environmental engineer at IIDMA and coordinator of the EUKI project in Spain.