IPCC report row: getting to the meat of the matter

All summer long debate has raged about a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its apparent advocacy of lower-meat diets. With some predicting the eruption of a full-blown culture war, Nick Hughes unpicks what the report actually says and the implications for food businesses.

Let’s cut to the chase. Does the IPCC say we need to eat less meat? In short, no. But then that’s not its job. The role of the IPCC is to assess evidence on the impact and future risks of climate change – in this case with regards to land use – and present options for adaption and mitigation in a global context.

So why has the report proved so contentious? One of the options presented is dietary change. In a chapter on food security, the IPCC says: “Consumption of healthy and sustainable diets presents major opportunities for reducing GHG emissions from food systems and improving health outcomes.” It goes on to give examples of healthy and sustainable diets as those “high in coarse grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds” and “low in energy-intensive animal-sourced and discretionary foods (such as sugary beverages)”.

That seems pretty clear cut. Not really. In its summary for policymakers – a text agreed by representatives from 195 member countries – the reference to dietary change leaves plenty of room for interpretation. The text reads: “Balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.”

Cue a fierce debate about what constitutes resilient, sustainable, low-GHG emission systems, right? Exactly. Farming groups, notably the NFU, seized on this detail to make the case for continued consumption of British meat. NFU president Minette Batters told the BBC that British livestock farmers produced high-quality meat using “incredibly sustainable farming systems”, and expressed her frustration that the need to reduce meat consumption had been inflated within some parts of the media.

Does she have a point? Let’s take those two points in reverse. On the media focus, dietary change has undoubtedly dominated the airwaves which, given it was one of 28 response options, suggests a lack of balanced reporting. Nor has there been much attempt in the mainstream media to explain the nuances of the debate around what constitutes sustainable livestock production in a UK context. In the media’s defence, what we put in our trolleys and our mouths is the point at which the report becomes real for the millions of UK citizens not directly involved in agricultural production. As such, it’s an obvious route into raising awareness of an issue that could never be adequately summarised in a two-minute news segment or 500-word article (I appreciate the irony here).

On the UK’s “incredibly sustainable farming systems”, again there is no perfect answer. The IPCC notes that “ruminants can have positive ecological effects if they are fed extensively on existing grasslands”. Proponents of eating British meat point out that the UK is blessed with ample supplies of both rain and grass, meaning the majority of the UK’s cattle and sheep are – for some or all of their lives – raised on pasture that can’t be used for any other productive purpose.

As the debate delves deeper into the science, however, its complexity begins to unravel. Proponents say that grazing livestock in rotation with crops can build fertility and under the right conditions sequester carbon thereby offsetting a significant proportion of the emissions from cattle and sheep. The difficulty is that, as the IPCC points out, “analysing ruminant meat production is highly complex because of the extreme heterogeneity of production systems”, making the development of consistent, simple advice on what meat to eat and how much challenging at best. Most experts agree there is a scientific basis for sequestration from grasslands; however, it is also highly localised and dependent on a range of factors such as historical farming practices, stocking densities, soil types and climate. This means, for some climate researchers, claims that we should all simply focus on eating grass-fed meat are problematic (similarly, a simple ‘eat less meat’ message faces criticism for being too reductionist). In a much-debated report released in 2017, the Food Climate Research Network concluded that based on the amount of land used and GHG emissions produced per kilogramme of meat, pasture-based cattle actually have a greater climate impact than animals fed grains and soy (other environmental issues associated with intensive livestock production including deforestation and lower welfare standards were outside the scope of the report).

Could we feed everyone with exclusively organic or grass-fed meat even if we wanted to? Good question. In a 2018 study, which modelled a 100% agroecological or organic Europe where livestock are either grass-fed or fed on ‘leftovers’, the results showed that the European population could be fed healthily and sustainably, with sheep meat consumption remaining at current levels and a small reduction in beef (3%), but with huge reductions in pork (60%) and poultry (66%) grain-dependent proteins for which, in contrast to beef and lamb, consumption rates are growing. For its part, the IPCC cites a 2016 study which found that if every country was to adopt the UK’s 2011 average diet and meat consumption, 95% of global habitable land area would be needed for agriculture – up from 50% of land currently used.

In summary – albeit a not especially helpful one – this is a complex debate framed by ambiguous science that has a long way to run.

So what does the IPCC make of some of the alternatives to meat? While not discounting the role of meat substitutes, the IPCC’s conclusions could hardly be described as bullish when compared with some of the hype around meat alternatives. It notes that meat analogues such as imitation meat from plant products, cultured meat, and insects “may help in the transition to more healthy and sustainable diets”, but assesses that “their carbon footprints and acceptability are uncertain”. Lab meat is described as “being an option for a limited-resource world, rather than a mainstream solution”, while insect protein “has the potential to reduce GHG emissions otherwise associated with livestock production”, although “no study […] has quantified such potential”. In fact, the IPCC is aligned with many campaign groups in its focus on shifting to more wholefoods such as pulses, fruits and vegetables, rather than processed meat alternatives.

Is there anything everyone can agree on?! There’s pretty strong consensus on the threat posed to food systems by climate change and the urgent need to address it. The IPCC states that food security has already been impacted due to warming, changing precipitation patterns, and greater frequency of some extreme weather events, resulting in decreased yields (although in some higher-latitude regions yields have actually increased). Its modelling across a number of response scenarios predicts a 29% increase in cereal prices at the upper level by 2050 putting up to 183 million additional people at risk of hunger. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change has said that any delay in tackling climate change risks serious impacts including desertification, further degradation of land, and potentially serious disruption to the global food supply. The NFU, meanwhile, has set an ambitious target for the farming sector to contribute net-zero emissions by 2040, which it aims to achieve by improvements in productivity, carbon capture and renewable energy production.

What does this all mean for businesses? They will need to decide to what extent they refocus their ranges and menus to offer more plant-based foods. Although we’re unlikely to see many retailers and caterers follow the controversial lead of Goldsmiths university, London, in banning beef entirely, certain brands are already aligning themselves with ‘less and better’ meat (and dairy) targets from NGOs such as Eating Better and WRI. And don’t underestimate the importance of market signals. With a quarter of people in the UK saying they are actively reducing their meat consumption businesses that fail to reflect changing diets face missing out on sales.

In the future, food brands should also expect to come under increasing pressure from farming groups to throw their weight behind ‘sustainable British meat’ if a more liberal post-Brexit trade policy creates opportunity for overseas producers to gain greater access to the UK market.

What’s the way forward then? Another good question. It hardly bears repeating that the question of eating less meat for the good of the planet is hugely problematic and emotionally charged, even before we consider other integral issues such as nutrition, the livelihoods of livestock farmers and the UK’s heritage and culture of producing and eating meat. Suffice it to say this is an issue that would benefit from some cool-headed, reasoned analysis on all sides of the debate with the aim of finding a sensible way forward.

Will we get it? Next question…

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