Don’t Blame the Cows for Global Warming

It is okay, you can start eating again!

Every week it seems that some self-appointed climate fascists are instructing us that we need to stop eating and drinking in order to “save the planet”. As Global Warming has evolved into Climate Change then Extinction Rebellion, ever-more shrill instructions about how we should live our lives are issued, with the threat of dire consequences should we fail to accede to their demands. Is it only me that observes the same tone of dire-threats and moral righteousness that were so prevalent in the CND anti-nuclear armageddon protesters of a generation ago – or indeed the religious zealots of the previous millennia? Their chant was “do as we say, or you’ll burn for an eternity”, which, come to think of it, is pretty much what the anti-western-economies lot are telling us about temperature change.

Beef cattle enjoy the sunshine

Anyway, back to the topic. For a number of years, agriculture has been blamed for a very substantial proportion of UK greenhouse gas emissions, with as much as 25% of the total quoted as being sourced from farming. These numbers are grabbed by vegan enthusiasts to shriek that we all need to stop eating meat or we’ll burn in hell for all eternity. Okay, so maybe I paraphrased them a little, but the point remains.

However, the science they are using is duff. According to Prof Myles Allen of Oxford University Environmental Change Institute, quoted in the Sustainable Food Trust, the picture is much more nuanced. Back in February, we mentioned that the finger points at the methane released by cows. In the approach used by the International Panel on Climate Change, methane is treated as equivalent to carbon dioxide in its greenhouseness (like my new word?) The true picture is that carbon dioxide is chemically stable and stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, methane breaks down rather quickly, and so has a much smaller impact on the atmosphere. The case against cows has been extensively overstated.

Barry Gardiner, not the voice of reason

At a conference organised by the Country Land and Business Association, Labour spokesman Barry Gardiner suggested that British farming should be part of the solution to global warming by producing less food and planting trees instead. To put it mildly, this approach doesn’t pass even the most cursory scrutiny. (Ha that originally I typed “What a moronic idea!” before professionalism got the better of me). Does Mr Gardiner think that the UK population will eat less? All that his madcap scheme would achieve is more food imports. So the food production leads to the same emissions, just somewhere else in the world. Then the food is transported to the UK, with all the emissions entailed. Mr Gardiner’s scheme actually would increase global emissions. We do like the idea of more tree planting, but to claim that replacing UK food production with forests would reduce emissions is just wrong.

Summary

Agriculture is not the huge emitter of greenhouse gases that the hysterical brigade would have you think. Carry on eating healthy nutritious meat and dairy products, comfortable in the knowledge that locally sourced food has low airmiles and supports high-quality, high-welfare British farming.

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Why is Farming so Fragmented?

Isn’t it odd that so many industries have concentrated into ever-smaller numbers of larger and larger businesses? And yet the backbone of the farming industry remains the family farm, working a few hundred acres and living on the job?

Ohhh. A lovely John Deere. or should that be Ohh Arrr! Lovely Green Tractor?

Agriculture is one of our oldest business activities, but structurally it remains unchanged. By way of contrast, in almost every other industry, a small number of large businesses dominate. For example, in the 1950’s, there were more than 40,000 greengrocers, and a similar number of butchers. Yet the supermarkets developed and decimated the traditional food shops. Arguably, this was by offering shoppers greater convenience, more choice and lower prices – all achieved by having more efficient supply chains and greater buying power. What became apparent was that these benefits outweighed a less individual and personal service in a traditional high street. Social changes such as more women working and more widespread car ownership facilitated the changes. Similarly in shoe manufacture, dentistry and even funeral services, larger companies have come to dominate.

Beef Cattle enjoying the grass in Herefordshire

Meanwhile, the number of farmers has reduced, but nowadays seems to have stabilised at 294,000, compared to 295,000 in 2010. (data from Government statistics). What has changed over the last 30 years is that many farmers now farm across a large area, working their own land and that of several neighbours. But no superfarms have developed. James Dyson has famously poured many of his millions into farmland purchase – but where are the few dominant self-grown organic (excuse the puns) farming businesses?

So why should that be? As usual, it is a combination of factors.

  1. Landowners are reluctant to sell their land, often for emotional reasons. If it has been in the family for generations, and the owners enjoy living in the farmhouse, then choosing to sell is likely to be more than a rational decision about earning power and returns on assets.

  2. Inheritance tax relief – in the form of Agricultural Property Relief – is designed to prevent death duties destroying family farms, but has the bizarre effect of keeping farmers nominally farming right up to their death. This tax distortion raises the price of land – and hence lowers the rental yield, making it less attractive to large institutional purchase.

  3. Returns on agriculture are derisory. Many farmers stay in the industry as they can just about scrape by, and no other profession is such a vocation. The vast majority of farmers consider themselves very lucky that they can enjoy their farming work all week, and then at the weekend they can indulge in their hobby….. of farming!

  4. There is also a question of scalability. The English countryside is just not suitable for the size of machinery that could bring economies of scale. Similarly, we prefer our cows to spend their days in green fields – and so there is a limit to how far they can walk back to the milking parlour twice a day, which caps the number of cows in a herd at maybe 400. It would be possible to keep many times more than this in one huge shed, and bring the grass to them – but our planners quite rightly resist such arrangements.

  5. Over the years, the whole industry has only survived on the back of subsidies and that does not look like changing. Whether it was support for minimum prices in the 1980s or area payments more recently, these effects were consistent on all farms regardless on size, and so would not have changed the average size. Going forward, future income payments are likely to be limited to a certain size, which could have the odd effect of working against efficiency.

 

What does the Future Hold?

Whilst farming is so unprofitable, big investment will be remain scarce. However, technology is changing, automation is coming. The farming businesses which can use new developments to gain efficiency will grow. The greater edge they can establish, the more they will step up into a super-league. That is just economics.

 

Meanwhile, farming can be a hard life, with the average dairy farmer receiving no thanks other than the occasional pat on the head!

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Tariffs for a No Deal Brexit – The Negotiations Continue

Clever move eh? Cutting tariff levels to zero on a wide wide range of imports has two clear messages;-

Goods Being Imported
  1. To the EU that perhaps they need to be a bit more flexible in their no-more-negotiations approach, or they can expect their exports to UK to decline drastically (especially hot topics like Irish farmers and German car-makers)

  2. To the UK consumers – who tend to be voters – that leaving the EU without a deal could have some upside too, with cheaper prices for a wide range of goods.

So they just need to protect the farmers (hence still some taxes on imports of agricultural products) to avoid any bad publicity.

Oh, and a third message to Brexit Nerds (such as us). The May Deal is still open for negotiation.

The fun goes on!

Cheaper Imports?
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