Campaigners have taken the government to court over its paucity of policies to tackle meat and dairy consumption. By David Burrows.
The UK government is facing a legal challenge from campaigners who say its new food strategy for England fails to address meat and dairy consumption.
Lawyers at Leigh Day, acting on behalf of campaign group Feedback, have filed a claim for a judicial review at the High Court, the FT reported. They say the government’s failure to adopt measures to reduce meat and dairy production and consumption is contrary to the recommendations of its own expert climate advisers.
The national food strategy independent review, written by Henry Dimbleby and commissioned by the government in 2019, identified the need for substantial reductions in meat and dairy consumption in order to tackle climate change. This echoed similar recommendations made by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – an independent, statutory body established under the Climate Change Act.
However, the food strategy published in June “ignored this clear advice” which makes the strategy unlawful and is at odds with the government’s net-zero strategy, the campaigners argue. “Our client believes that there is something inherently wrong with the government promising to address carbon emissions as part of its food strategy, but then omitting any action on one of the biggest contributors to the problem, namely meat and dairy,” said Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith.
Leigh Day also represented Friends of the Earth in a recent legal challenge against the UK government’s net-zero strategy. In July the High Court ruled that the strategy – fronted by former prime minister, Boris Johnson, – is unlawful. The strategy is too vague and the climate minister who signed it off, Greg Hands, didn’t have the legally required information on how carbon budgets would be met. “This decision is a breakthrough moment in the fight against climate delay and inaction,” said Sam Hunter-Jones from law firm ClientEarth, which was also involved in the case.
The environment secretary will need to present a net-zero strategy that complies with the Climate Change Act by April 2023. That means quantifying the emissions that individual policies will contribute to future carbon targets, reported New Scientist, which has made repeated attempts to get hold of a spreadsheet understood to detail the emissions savings of individual policies.
The ruling is thought to strengthen the role of the CCC, which recently warned that the weakest of all the government’s net-zero policies concern agriculture and land use.
In his report Dimbleby noted how “suspicious” the public is of mandatory methods to reduce meat consumption, and that the government is “attuned” to this mood. His research showed 48% oppose a tax on fresh meat, though there is less opposition to one on processed meat (24%). Support seemed to be strongest for a target imposed on supermarkets and fast food chains to sell 10% less meat by 2030 (one in two consumers would support such a move).
Expert evidence unequivocally shows that curtailing meat and dairy is critical for all transition pathways to net-zero, said Feedback executive director Carina Millstone. Rather than outlining plans to support the public and farmers in making the shift to low-carbon foods as promised, the food strategy “blithely ignored” the meat and dairy question altogether, she said, adding: “We want the government to go back to the drawing board and come up with a strategy that delivers for the climate rather than one that simply spurts yet more hot air.”
The government has for some time avoided the controversial topic of meat and dairy consumption. Speaking recently to the House of Lords environment committee about the role of behaviour change in tackling climate change, Defra secretary George Eustice said: “If you could do something about the diet of the ruminants rather than lecturing people and trying to tell them to eat less meat, coming back to everything we know about behaviour change, it would probably be a better way to tackle the challenge than trying to lecture people about meat eating. The government have no intention of doing that beyond the Eatwell plate,” he added.
In August the government launched a UK-wide call for evidence – supported by the devolved administrations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – to explore the potential for animal feed additives like seaweed and probiotics to reduce methane emissions from ruminant livestock.
“Well managed livestock can provide various environmental benefits and meat and dairy can both be an important part of a balanced diet,” said farming minister Victoria Prentis. “Through this call for evidence we’ll better understand the promising role emerging feed additive technologies for cattle could play and how government can help drive its development.”