Climate Change and Livestock in the UK: The Politics of Policy Processes

Photo credit: Christine Page (Jersey cows at Smiling Tree farm)

Written by Amber Lawes, former Food and Development MA student at IDS

The debate about livestock farming in the UK is fraught, and in the post-Brexit context is at high stakes, as alternative agricultural policy scenarios are contemplated. Many claims and counter-claims are made. Some argue that livestock are a huge cause of environmental damage, massive contributors to climate change and that everyone should switch to a meat-free diet. However, livestock farmers retort, arguing that livestock farming can be sustainable, and that livestock are an important part of the countryside, contributing to the economy.

To understand the politics of policy processes surrounding this debate, I explored how these debates are framed in the UK mainstream media. My research looked at five major UK newspaper publications, analysing 113 media articles (chosen through keyword searches) between 2015 and 2020. Four key narratives were identified, each framed around a problem definition and offering a set of solutions. Each was supported by a set of evidence claims, often encapsulated in some key data or models. Each narrative is associated with a set of actors, linked together in networks, with clear interests (political, commercial, financial etc.) associated.

Of the four narratives identified, the most dominant narrative is a general critique of livestock farming and the contributions it makes to greenhouse emissions. It is frequently combined with a narrative focusing on individual dietary change away from livestock products, and sometimes with one advocating the removal of livestock through rewilding. Finally, there is a narrative centred on the advocacy of regenerative agriculture, involving livestock. However, this remains highly marginal in the debate, and its representation in the media. The following sections outline each of the narratives in turn.

Narrative 1: Livestock Farming is a Major Contributor to Climate Change

Across the media stories analysed the most common narrative links livestock farming to climate change. A common refrain is that “14.5% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are attributable to the livestock industry, which is more than the entire transportation sector”. The source of this data is the now famous 2013 report from the FAO, Livestock’s Long Shadow (LLS). The claim emerges from Life Cycle Assessment modelling of different scenarios, with many assumptions embedded. This statistic has since become accepted as a global orthodoxy, embedded in public and policy discourse. As Patrick Holden, Founding Director of the Sustainable Food Trust explained to me: “This is an exemplar of what happens when highly regarded organisations like the FAO present statistics and it becomes the unchallenged view upon which everything else is based”. A recent example of the use of ‘iconic figures’ to make a point can be found in Greenpeace’s Farming for Failure, which was launched with much fanfare across the media during 2020, and claimed “The increase in animal farming in the EU over the last 10 years has had the same climate impact as flying around the globe over 3 million times”.

Underpinning this dominant narrative is the use of scientific assessment models, which give credence and legitimacy to the debate. Yet all knowledge is inevitably selective and partial, and laden with politics. It is therefore vital to interrogate the modelling systems and the conclusions drawn: does this figure relate to all livestock farming, or only some (i.e. industrial systems)? In generating policy-relevant positions, models must therefore rely on selective information. The data behind the LLS report (and others using similar life-cycle models) have been widely challenged, yet the conclusions that underpin this mainstream narrative, have been reinforced by its accepted scientific credibility, and the power and influence of major institutions such as the FAO.

Narrative 2: Dietary Change

Many have highlighted the link between human dietary health and environmental sustainability, but it was the EAT-Lancet Commission’s 2019 Planetary Health Diet report that gave this narrative much prominence in the media. Recommendations included the need to seek “a 90 per cent reduction of beef consumption in western countries, replaced by five times more beans and pulses” and people should “…eat mostly vegetables, grains, pulses and nuts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

As with the LLS, many have critiqued the report for its narrow, top-down, anti-meat agenda and its strong association with the World Economic Forum, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the World Resources Institute. As Frederick Leroy, a biomedical researcher, told me, “The EAT-Lancet Commission… goes beyond a remodelling of health, it’s about a complete social engineering of modern societal development; a lifestyle that all should desire”.

This vision of dietary change and sustainability is presented in high-profile marketing, linked to a well-respected, medical publication, The Lancet. Well-placed and powerful organisations are thus able to present a storyline of a linear, simple, quick-fix solutions, focused on individual change, rather than focusing on radical transformation for planetary problems.

Narrative 3: Rewilding

The rewilding movement has attracted much attention in the mainstream media. In the UK, the Knepp Estate in Sussex acts as a symbol and demonstration of an alternative vision of formerly farmed landscapes. As Isabella Tree, owner of Knepp Estate, explained to me, “Rewilding is about getting wilder and restoring natural processes and working with nature”. In her vision, this does not exclude livestock, but sees a very different relationship between humans, livestock and wild landscapes. Others in the UK rewilding network are more negative about livestock, perhaps especially the environmental journalist, George Monbiot, who writes regularly for The Guardian newspaper and co-founded Rewilding Britain, which aims to share rewilding and conservation practices across the UK.

As in previous narratives, the rewilding advocates problematise industrial livestock production being part of the climate change problem, arguing for the value of more heterogeneous wild landscapes, with and (usually) without livestock.

Narrative 4: Regenerative Agriculture

This narrative appears the least in the media analysis, but offers an alternative with livestock at the centre. Regenerative (or sustainable) agriculture is seen to be a solution to climate change problems, as long as the right holistic grazing practices are followed. It is argued that grass-fed cows can actually “sequester more carbon than they produce”.

BBC Natural History film producer, Tim Martin, who founded the NGO Farm Wilder, explains how if we are to continue consuming meat we must “…eat less in quantity but higher in quality…”. The newly published book Sacred Cow  explains how grass-fed cows act as part of the “biogenic” carbon cycle; meaning grazing ruminants strengthen plant growth and sequester carbon, which in turn builds soil organic matter.

Central to this narrative is a small network of actors, many of whom are practising smallholder farming across the UK. Together they are challenging the deeply-ingrained, but simplistic understanding of livestock and climate change, using their experiential expertise in an attempt to provide a richer, more nuanced framing of the debate. Without substantial scientific and international institutional backing they are aiming to raise the profile of the regenerative agriculture movement, presenting alternative data. Patrick Holden explained how the Sustainable Food Trust is creating a “Globally Harmonised Framework” for measuring on-farm sustainability in regenerative practices, aiming to present an alternative in scientific terms. He argues that, “This project will be a powerful tool to transform the system and finally amplify the voice of the sustainable farming community.

The Politics of Policy

Each of the four narratives identified in the mainstream UK media has a clear and simple argument, supported by particular sources of accredited data, and promoted by a group of actors, linked together in networks. Which narrative becomes more dominant is less to do with the evidence presented, as the various sources have been widely critiqued and the assumptions questioned, but more to do with the way such data is translated into public policy and media debates – often through sound-bite statistics and iconic numbers, which get repeated again and again.

The way narratives get promoted is highly dependent on the power and influence of particular actors and associated networks. Some perspectives are heavily backed by well-funded campaign organisations or international organisations; some become central to debates through the promotion by media-savvy players and journalists with connections; others by contrast are more informal, embedded in less prominent networks and with less power.

The media analysis showed clearly that a well-articulated, simple narrative (ideally with villains and heroes) travels far in policy debates, especially if well-backed by powerful actors. And this happens even when the evidence and wider claims are disputed. Simple models, well-publicised demonstratable examples and articulate advocates all help a narrative travel and so gain traction in policy spaces.

Yet, as argued by the advocates of regenerative agriculture and the many critics of the mainstream reports of LLS and the EAT-Lancet Commission, a more rounded debate is needed. Simple models, one-size-fits-all solutions and blanket recommendations are inadequate. A healthy debate must involve a wider challenge to mainstream knowledge and the process of its construction, and in so doing it is important to unpack the politics and interests behind different agendas (including the strident meat advocates, as well as their equally strident objectors) and recognise where the power lies.

If a more mature discussion on the relationship between livestock and climate change is to emerge in the UK, and with this a more sophisticated and evidence-informed debate in the media, then a wider deliberative, open-ended and transparent debate is clearly needed. This will hopefully inform the many issues emerging around a post-Brexit agricultural policy in the UK, and the place of livestock and grazed landscapes within this.

A PDF version of the author’s Master’s Thesis can be sent upon request, please email

Photo credit: Christine Page (Jersey cows at Smiling Tree farm)

This is the second blog in a series on climate change, biodiversity and livestock.

2 thoughts

  1. Great to read this and help promote a “more mature discussion on the relationship between livestock and climate change” as you put it. To complete the circle, the role that meat (in its many forms) plays in fulfilling our dietary needs also needs a thorough and nuanced discussion. You touch on it in your point 2/, but with nuts, beans, 5-a-day and fibre being the only positive foodstuffs that are communicated to younger generations today, and the steady rise of profitable ultra-processed fake foods, this might already be too late.


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