UK Supermarket Chain to Move Its Farms to Net-Zero By 2030

Morrisons will collaborate with 3,000 farmers to move their operations to net-zero over the next decade.

General View Of Morrisons Supermarket
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

It’s fair to say that the climate world responded with a bit of skepticism when Shell Oil suggested it could reach net-zero while continuing to sell oil, with Greenpeace UK decrying the company’s “delusional reliance” on tree planting. After all, while afforestation and reforestation will no doubt play a critical role in responding to the climate crisis, there’s a growing recognition that they should not be used as an excuse to maintain our reliance on fossil fuels.

That said, the idea of nature-based carbon capture is not going away. And there is one sector above all others where it might have a very logical role to play.

And that’s agriculture.

Treehuggers like us have long talked about the potential for carbon farming, regenerative agriculture, and other ways that more planet-friendly food production could help offer solutions to both feeding the world and stabilizing its climate. Now Morrisons, the United Kingdom's fourth-largest supermarket chain, is putting its commercial weight behind these ideas, promising to collaborate with the 3,000 or so British farmers it works with to move their operations to net-zero by 2030 at the latest.

As with FedEx’s announcement about net-zero shipping, it is always important to note that the term net-zero can encompass a wide range of meanings. But in the case of farming, specifically, there’s a slightly more direct connection between reducing emissions from energy use, livestock etc., and recapturing emissions through land-based methods.

 Below are just some of the aspects that the Morissons plan will encompass:

  • Rearing different animal breeds.
  • Using low food-mile feedstuffs.
  • Using renewable energy and low emission housing.
  • Cutting down fuel and fertilizer use.
  • Planting grassland and clover.
  • Restoring peatland.
  • Improving soil health.
  • Planting trees.
  • Seeding hedgerows.

The goal is to achieve net-zero status for some products – eggs for example – by 2022, with harder to abate foods coming later. Critically, though, Morrisons is not shying away from the thorniest of challenges when it comes to food-based emissions:

“Within agriculture, beef farming is the most carbon intensive - generating 45 per cent of carbon emissions for only five per cent of products sold. Nearly half of this is down to methane produced by cattle. So in addition, Morrisons will work with its beef farms to use smaller cattle breeds, pick low methane feeds, and look at methane reducing supplements (e.g. seaweed).”

Given the massive amount of current hype around plant-based "meats," it will be interesting to see if and how Morrisons is able to develop truly net-zero models for animal-based agriculture, not to mention what metrics it will be able to show to provide evidence for its claims. As Lloyd Alter has shown in his efforts to live a 1.5 degree lifestyle, the numbers around relative emissions for different foodstuffs – and especially meat and dairy – tend to be all over the map, and are sometimes cherry-picked to fit folks’ preexisting biases and opinions about the ethics of animal husbandry.

If Morrisons is able to bring some clarity to these debates – and it is encouraging to see that their plan includes collaboration with universities and other research institutions – it may help to spread best practice more broadly across the industry. That’s at least how Minette Batters, President of the National Union of Farmers, seems to see the potential:

“British farming has a key role to play in the nation’s drive to net zero. Our contribution spans three pillars of action - reducing emissions, storing carbon on farmland, and renewables and the bioeconomy. Our members are already playing their part to help achieve the NFU’s ambition of reaching net zero agriculture by 2040 and want to do more. I applaud Morrisons on its commitment and look forward to continuing our good working relationship.” 

The other challenge, of course, will be around timescales and permanence. While emissions we release now are doing immediate and long-term damage to the climate, natural carbon sinks like soils and tree planting and peatland restoration tend to take a long time to come to fruition, can easily be reversed if they are later destroyed, and also eventually "top out" in terms of their capacity to absorb more carbon. As Morrisons’ net-zero plans come into more detailed focus, climate folks will no doubt be watching to see what the balance ends up being between cutting emissions at source, and mitigating emissions through carbon sinks.