Government policies to reduce meat are insufficient

There are almost no public policies in place to support the transition to a low carbon food sector, according to a new report published this week.

In many EU countries and in the US, meat consumption is more than double the recommended levels for healthy diets. Meanwhile, animal agriculture is responsible for around 16.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to the emissions from combustion of all transport fuels. The sector is also responsible for a third of methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

However, the report, Growing the Good: The case for low carbon transition in the food sector, shows that government policies universally support unsustainable agricultural production systems dominated by intensive meat and dairy farmers and producers.

Meanwhile, there is an “alarming lack” of policies to ensure the food sector is part of the solution to climate change. This includes policies that will result in a “managed reduction” of meat and dairy consumption.

The report came in a week when UK climate minister Claire Perry told the BBC that it is not the government’s job to advice people on a climate-friendly diet. “I don't think we should be in the business of prescribing to people how they should run their diets,” she said.

Campaigners suggested this was a dereliction of duty. The new report sets out a number of recommendations, including new dietary guidelines that contain recommendations to reduce meat and other animal products. Critically, this advice should also be followed by schools and integrated into public procurement policies, the authors said.

The report also puts forward measures such as: carbon taxes on meat; subsidies aimed at the production of protein crops (like pulses) rather than intensive livestock; and more funding for the development of meat alternatives.

Nusa Urbancic, campaigns director at the Changing Markets Foundation, which compiled the report with campaign group Mighty Earth, said: “If meat and dairy consumption increases as forecast, there will be almost no room within the total allowable global emissions budget for any sectors other than agriculture by 2050.”

The report’s authors argued that a managed reduction in demand for meat and dairy could increase the chance of staying below a 1.5°C temperature increase and avoid climate the “cliff edge” highlighted in last week’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In recent years, there has been a move towards – and increased interest in – plant-based and flexitarian diets. However, this won’t be enough, said Anahita Yousefi, campaigns director at Mighty Earth. “The complete absence of public policies to promote a shift towards plant-based diets means that this critical dietary shift is left to the whims of the market and personal choice.”

Instead of fuelling such societal trends, politicians are succumbing to pressure from meat producers by introducing new legislative measures aiming to restrict market growth for alternatives, such as the recent French ban on terms like “vegan burger”.

On the positive side, food is the sector where market transformation can “happen quickly and have significant short-term benefits,” they said. In fact, “the transition towards a low-emissions food system is in many ways easier to realise than in other sectors, such as energy and transport”.

The report’s authors urge governments to “set clear trajectories for the transition to give certainty to companies and investors, help farmers to adjust to these changes, and create an engaging and desirable vision for citizens of how one of the most important problems of our era can be addressed. The arguments in favour of health, animal welfare and the environment are overwhelming.”

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