The ambitious goal, to be achieved by 2030, would represent the most radical shift in diets since the Second World War, writes Nick Hughes
From cutting sugar to ditching plastics, foodservice businesses are no strangers to being set demanding targets. But the latest call to action around meat reduction may be the most ambitious yet.
Last week, the Eating Better coalition of over 50 organisations launched a road map to reducing meat and dairy consumption in the UK by 50% by 2030 while simultaneously shifting towards sourcing “better” animal protein.
Foodservice companies are not expected to achieve this target on their own, nor will they be expected to report on reductions in their own individual meat and dairy sales volumes, but the sector is identified as one of five key agents of change (along with government, retailers, producers and investors) in delivering the ambition that, if achieved, would represent the most radical shift in diets since the Second World War.
Explaining the rationale behind the target at last week’s launch in London, Eating Better executive director Simon Billing said the government’s commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 meant that diets and land use could no longer be marginalised under climate policy.
Billing suggested that the ‘less’ aspect of the ‘less and better’ debate had largely been won, citing recent research from the Eat-Lancet Commission and IPCC, showing the importance of diversifying diets to include more vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and pulses if the world’s climate is to remain under the threshold of 1.5 degrees of warming set out in the Paris Agreement.
More contested is the question of what constitutes better meat. Speaking during a panel session at the launch, Sue Pritchard, director of the RSA’s food, farming and countryside commission (which recently published its final report), argued that the focus of Eat-Lancet’s planetary health diet on eating chicken at the expense of red meat was flawed in a UK setting where pasture-reared ruminant livestock could play an important role in a sustainable production system.
Eating Better has previously identified organic, pasture-based and high welfare as key characteristics of better meat and dairy production but admits there is no certification scheme that delivers neatly across all of its better meat and dairy principles.
This is a debate that has a long way to run; however, the urgency of addressing the climate crisis does not allow for perfect answers to be found to every question, hence why Eating Better has seized the moment to go public with such a bold target.
In its road map for achieving the 50% reduction in meat and dairy consumption by 2030, the coalition sets our four actions foodservice companies can take immediately to create an environment in which people can make good food decisions (because, as Billing noted, this is not about telling people what to eat). These are:
- increase the proportion of plant-based options on their menus with meals based on plant foods as the default option
- source all meat and dairy products from better production systems
- have meat and dairy reduction targets that are measured and reported on
- support the professional training of chefs in healthy and sustainable food, including plant-based cooking and sourcing better meat.
If the environmental case for offering less and better meat doesn’t persuade businesses to join the movement for change then the business case may soon prove impossible to ignore. Billing referenced the continued change in public attitudes towards the role of animal protein in the diet, with plant-based eating gaining particular traction with those aged 12 to 18 years old. Teenagers at the older end of this spectrum will be almost 30 when we reach 2030 and will account for a key demographic for those companies servicing the eating out-of-home market.
A number of businesses are already delivering against the four actions, a point Billing acknowledged. But it will need a committed sector-wide movement for foodservice to contribute significantly towards the 50% target.
Waitrose, despite operating in a different sector, gave an insight into just how ambitious this scale of reduction in meat and dairy consumption really is. Nutrition and health manager Moira Howie reported that sales of vegan food had risen by 165% since a dedicated fixture was introduced, but that hasn’t been accompanied by a downward trend in meat sales. The theory that simply by offering more plant-based meal options will automatically result in a substitution effect has yet to be proven at any scale.
The evidence for what works and what doesn’t will evolve over time. What Eating Better has done is to set out a framework to act on an issue on which there is a growing sense of the need to act with urgency and ambition.