FUW complaint: Plant-based diet can fight climate change - UN

We have written to BBC Director General Tony Hall to officially complain about the 'Plant-based diet can fight climate change - UN' news item and the news programme associated which was presented on the BBC News on Thursday the 8th August 2019, and was subsequently featured on the BBC’s social media channels. 

The FUW believes that this report, and its associated online content, breached the BBC Charter by failing to comply with those Charter elements pertaining to :

(1) The Independence of the BBC, in terms of “...independent in all matters concerning the fulfilment of its Mission and the promotion of the Public Purpose”

(2) The Public Purposes of the BBC, in terms of providing “...impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them

(3) Acting in the public interest, in terms of ensuring “...that the benefits (whether direct or indirect) of decisions relating to the fulfilment of its Mission and the promotion of the Public Purposes outweigh the costs (whether direct or indirect);...and in doing so, have regard to economic, social and cultural benefits and costs.”

Across the article and associated news programme and its associated content have led the FUW to believe that the BBC utterly failed to comply with section 3.1 of the Charter which states that ‘the BBC must be independent in all matters concerning the fulfilment of its Mission and the Promotion of Public Purposes….’. 

The National Atmospheric Emissions Industry provides UK greenhouse gas inventories by source.  According to this data, UK agriculture emissions totalled 10% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.  Emissions from the UK transport, energy supply, business and residential were 27%, 24%, 17% and 17%  respectively. The FUW would therefore seriously dispute the BBC’s claim that agriculture is a ‘major’ factor in global warming. This emissions data is provided in kilotonnes of CO2 equivalent and refers to the basket of Kyoto greenhouse gases; including methane.  

The article claims that “food production also contributes to global warming. Agriculture - together with forestry - accounts for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock rearing contributes to global warming through the methane gas the animals produce, but also via deforestation to expand pastures, for example.” 

However, the BBC failed to make clear that this data referred to global rather than UK emissions.   It is well recognised that significant differences exist between different livestock sectors and different forms of livestock production in different countries; for example UK grass-based systems differ significantly to USA type feedlots.  The FUW therefore believes that the BBC failed to faithfully comply with section 5 of the Charter which states that the Mission of the BBC is to ‘act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output services which inform, educate and entertain’.

The FUW would seek to ensure that the BBC is more transparent with the source and remit of future data on this issue and that the method of reporting does not misrepresent and mislead by oversimplifying this complex issue to the extent that it is akin to a deliberate attempt to undermine the UK livestock sector.  

According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 2017 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions report, total UK greenhouse gas emissions are 42% lower than 1990.  This report also states that UK emissions account for less than 2% of the global total.

The greenhouse gas emission projections for UK agriculture to 2030, which have been developed by the Defra Economics Group, actually predict a decline in gases such as methane; and this includes enteric emissions from sheep, dairy and non-dairy cattle. The FUW would therefore be grateful if the BBC would refrain from undermining the significant inroads in reducing greenhouse gas emissions made by UK agriculture and would reiterate that differences between global and UK data should made clear within future reports.  UK agriculture has already embraced changes to breeding and feeding regimes, animal health protocols, nutrient management and on-farm technologies in order to improve efficiencies and reduce environmental impacts. 

Given the above, the FUW also believes that the BBC failed in its duty to comply with section 6.1 of the Charter which states that the purposes of the BBC are to ‘provide impartial news and information….duly accurate and impartial news….its content should be provided to the highest standards and should offer a range and depth of analysis’. 

Indeed, this type of reporting is not only misleading, but also careless and neglectful.  This type of reporting could allow those who are informed to suspect deliberate bias and does a tremendous disservice to BBC license payers who deserve proper, substantiated and thorough investigative journalism; rather than sensationalist and unevidenced headlines.  Similarly, the assertion by the BBC that switching from beef, to cod, chicken or soya beans will also ‘drastically’ reduce CO2 emissions is similarly lacking the key comparative criteria required to allow the viewer or reader to distinguish between different countries of origin and differing production methods.  Indeed, several reports, such as the FCRN-WWF-UK report, identify that shifts to non-meat alternatives could lead to an increase in land use requirements overseas. 

In addition to the above, it is essential that the larger role of meat and dairy in contributing to the health and nutritional status of individuals is not overlooked. The article makes the following reference: “The environmental impact of meat production is important to many vegetarians and vegans. A UK-based group called #NoBeef lobbies caterers to take beef and lamb off student menus.” and the FUW wonder why such a lobbying group is referenced.

The FUW believes that the BBC has been incredibly neglectful in its reporting of this issue and is therefore requesting the evidentiary sources utilised.  In particular, the information which was used to provide the kilogram of greenhouse gases produced by the different food types mentioned previously is requested; as is the volume of food in each comparison.  Pursuant to section 56.2 of the BBC Charter, which relates to appropriate remedial action, the FUW also believes it to be imperative that the BBC allow the agricultural sector the opportunity of redress and would welcome further discussion on this issue. 

Climate change is a complex societal issue with numerous facets. As with other sectors, the agricultural sector continues to make inroads in this area and continues to work with numerous stakeholders to improve efficiencies and maintain the natural environment.  The FUW is therefore incensed that the BBC decided to deliberately reduce this complex issue into a sensationalist article and that a more balanced and evidenced based report was not provided.

This is not the first time that the FUW has felt it necessary to write to the BBC to raise concerns about the content of the news articles, indeed a letter was sent in November last year to raise very similar concerns about a BBC news report entitled ‘Global Emissions Warning’.