Science Based Targets in Agriculture Must Drive Robust Transition

This month a ground-breaking global standard for food companies setting science-based targets for climate was published. That’s great news, but the food sector must be wary that in solving one problem it does not exacerbate others. The FAIRR Initiative has worked with Professor Tim Benton, Chatham House, and Professor Michael Obersteiner, Oxford University, to explore this further.

Food systems are carbon-intensive and responsible for around a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, but until now, they have lacked adequate guidance on how to reduce emissions in line with 1.5C degrees. The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), the global leadership body for ambitious emissions reduction targets, changed that earlier this month. Its new guidance for the Forest, Land and Agriculture (FLAG) sectors has provided a suggested pathway for how food companies can align themselves with the latest climate goals. As hundreds of companies have already signed up to science based targets, including over 300 in the agriculture and food sector, this marks an important step forward.

While the methodology is a welcome step forwards a few concerns remain. Whilst we welcome that new guidance for the forestry, agriculture and land use sectors exists, it is vital that investors and companies also consider risk factors beyond emissions. The aim of this article is to start a conversation on how the methodology can be improved, with a focus on three particular issues: robustness on climate risk, biodiversity risks, and on antibiotics.

The Race to Zero-ish

On climate action, the methodology will allow most animal protein-producing companies to choose between an intensity-based target (i.e. reducing the tonne of CO2-equivalent per tonne of fresh weight meat) or an absolute reduction target (i.e. reducing total emissions by at least 30.3% over ten years). While a company cannot set a target that allows total emissions to grow, a company could reduce it’s emission intensity whilst increasing its production volumes with no change in total emissions by 2030, and do this through increasing the intensive-nature of production.

Furthermore, the recent IPCC report highlights that intensification of livestock production does not necessarily lead to emission reductions. Chapter 7 of the WG3 report shows that despite recent advances leading to reduced emissions per unit of product (calories, meat and milk), increased individual animal productivity generally requires increased inputs (e.g. animal feed) and this generates increased emissions.

Hence, intensity-based targets run the risk of further intensification in livestock production and could bring serious unintended consequences, from zoonotic disease risk and antimicrobial resistance to poor animal welfare, whilst failing to reduce emissions.

Another methodological issue is the requirement for a company to disclose and manage only 67% of Scope 3 emissions (emissions in the supply chain). By FAIRR’s estimates, these are often the majority of emissions from protein producers. There is currently limited disclosure and action on Scope 3 emissions, especially methane emissions. What’s more, guidance related to carbon removals is also risky – relying on the assumption that carbon is stored in soils permanently once sequestered.

The Importance of Ecosystems

Another potential unintended consequence from the adoption of the methodology is greater deforestation, driven by increased demand for soy-based animal feed from an intensified production system. Deforestation tends to be the main feedstock in intensive farming. After beef, soy is the second-largest driver of tropical deforestation, and 70-75% of all soy becomes livestock feed. Intensification, even with the goal of reduction emission intensity, could push these numbers higher, causing irreversible damage to local biodiversity and ecosystems on which the global economy depends. There are further potential biodiversity risks driven by livestock intensification such as nitrogen pollution and soil depletion – these are not covered here due to space limitations.

The SBTi’s FLAG guidance merely requires a zero deforestation target for a company’s “primary deforestation linked commodities” by 2025. Two major risks arise from this commitment format. For one, a company self-defines what its primary deforestation-linked commodities are. And secondly, a cut-off date on deforestation – aligned with scientific evidence and the New York Declaration on Forests of 2020 – is not required in the guidance. The cut-off date of 2025 poses a risk to global climate efforts as the Amazon Rainforest has been deemed close to its tipping point in a recent study, and research from 2021 showed the Amazon is now a source of CO2 rather than a sink. Thus, in addition to not being Paris-compatible, in its current form, SBTI FLAG risks undermining progress towards the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and the Sustainable Development Goals. Ideally, SBTi FLAG should also rule out the conversion of other ecosystems, beyond forests (e.g. grasslands, wetlands and important ecosystems like the Cerrado) as, in terms of carbon and biodiversity value, these are comparable to tropical forests.

Antibiotics: A Silent Pandemic

Intensive animal agriculture is also a key contributor to antimicrobial resistance (AMR), described by G7 ministers as a ‘silent pandemic’ to which the world must wake up. Like air, soil and water, antibiotics are a global resource that needs to be preserved and used responsibly. Livestock is responsible for over 70% of the total consumption of antibiotics, with cramped and unsanitary conditions in intensive farming systems leading to increased prevalence of disease and excessive use of antibiotics. The current unsustainable use of antibiotics, particularly those deemed medically important for human health, is not tenable if we wish to prevent future global health and economic crises. With AMR already the third leading cause of death globally, comparable to HIV, TB and malaria, the use of antibiotics must begin a downward trajectory, which will not be possible if animal agriculture intensifies further. Another related consequence of greater intensification could be poorer animal welfare, which is becoming a growing concern for consumers and investors. As an example, data shows that the market for products with positive animal welfare has grown 27% since 2019, indicating a shift in consumer demand.

Whilst the SBTI FLAG methodology is a welcome first step, future iterations must take into account absolute emission reduction targets, as well as wider ESG issues, including the growing risk of antibiotic resistance. The risks posed by intensive animal farming are real and rising, and investors and companies cannot afford to see an increase in intensive farming methods as a consequence of guidance which does not take the complexity of the food system into account. To simultaneously reduce emissions and build a more resilient and sustainable food system, we urgently need a clear and holistic roadmap for the agriculture and land use sectors that limits global warming to 1.5°C by 2050 whilst aligning with nature, health, and food security goals. Investors with $17 trillion recently called for such a roadmap, which could help provide further evidence for future updates to the SBTI FLAG methodology.

More broadly, in line with other science-based methodology, we encourage the SBTI FLAG to review the methodology annually to take into account the latest scientific evidence. It is positive to see that companies considered to be on the ‘demand side’ such as retailers and restaurant chains, “would need to supplement targets with demand-side mitigation targets within 12 months of FLAG version 2.0”. Moreover, there are plans for FLAG version 2.0 to address demand-side levers more appropriately. The guidance should be strengthened in future iterations, and we stand ready to support improvements to the methodology in future.