Meat remains the elephant in the room

The government needs to come clean on its carbon reduction plans for food and agriculture, or risk failing to meet its new world-leading target. By Nick Hughes.

Last week, the UK government set in motion a law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. This is in line with recommendations from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) for the sixth carbon budget.

Credit where credit is due: it’s a genuinely world leading ambition in a year when the UK is required to show climate leadership as host of the COP26 summit in Glasgow. It also piles further pressure on businesses that have yet to make public their own carbon reduction plans.

As ever, setting the target is the easy part. The hard bit is putting in place the polices to achieve the target and then actually delivering them (although as CCC chief executive Chris Stark noted in a tweet about previous carbon budgets, “so far we’ve always met them”).

The task will only get harder as the low-hanging fruit is picked off and more difficult and unpopular policy decisions need to be taken. And on one of these decisions, the government has already shown itself unprepared to rock the boat.

From a food perspective the critical paragraph in the latest announcement is to be found towards the end of the press release issued by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It reads: “The government will look to meet this reduction target through investing and capitalising on new green technologies and innovation, whilst maintaining people’s freedom of choice, including on their diet. That is why the government’s sixth carbon budget of 78% is based on its own analysis and does not follow each of the Climate Change Committee’s specific policy recommendations.”

This may not read like a revelatory announcement but it’s hugely consequential since it effectively shows the government rejecting CCC modelling that shows meat and dairy consumption needs to fall by 20% by 2035 to put the UK on the path to net zero.

In dismissing the conclusions of its arms-length expert body, the government has once again shown itself unwilling to participate in the contentious debate about what we should eat – at least where the environment is concerned.

It also leaves a large hole in the 2035 carbon budget that will have to be made up elsewhere. As former business secretary and COP26 president-designate Alok Sharma, said: “Long term targets must be backed up with credible delivery plans.”

In this respect, agriculture is already failing to do its share of the heavy lifting. Green Alliance’s latest net zero policy tracker shows a faster than predicted shift to renewable energy is disguising a lack of progress in other sectors of the economy, such as transport, agriculture and land use, and buildings. Emissions from agriculture account for 12% of the UK total but have fallen by just 2% in the past decade.

So why is the government so afraid to tackle the issue of meat and dairy consumption? And how big a hole in the UK’s net zero pathway does its omission leave?

Silence on meat

On the first question, the latest government sidestep is the continuation of a decade-long refusal to consider the case for more sustainable diets since the coalition government was formed back in 2010. The last strategy document that grappled with the meat question emerged from the dying embers of Gordon Brown’s Labour government. But even Food 2030 was packed full of caveats and stopped short of advocating for lower meat and dairy consumption. It stated that “livestock production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally” and noted “there are some groups that advocate a diet with less meat as a way for consumers to reduce the environmental footprint of their diet”. However, it concluded that “the evidence to inform appropriate consumer choices and policy responses is currently unclear”.

Since then we’ve barely heard an utterance about the link between diets and climate change or any other environmental issue for that matter.

Politicians of the right consistently tell us they are not in the business of telling people what to eat, however the reality is somewhat different. Take the soft drinks levy, which is successfully reducing people’s sugar intake by making sugary soft drinks more expensive relative to low- or no-sugar options. Reformulation programmes are doing a similar, albeit largely ineffective, job in a less interventionist way. Agricultural subsidies, VAT, duty: they are all government policies that impact the price at the till, which consumers consistently cite as the biggest influence on their purchasing habits.

One possible reason for the inconsistency in the government’s position is that the case against soft drinks and foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) is relatively black and white. The products under scrutiny have few redeeming features beyond the enjoyment people derive from consuming them. You can, on the other hand, make a persuasive case for why people should regularly consume meat and dairy for its nutritional value, as well as a more contested argument about the importance of livestock in maintaining biodiversity and soil fertility.

But there’s surely also a political element at play. The livestock lobby is among the most powerful in Whitehall. Farming communities are largely located in rural, Conservative held seats. Irritating global food manufacturers by taxing soft drinks won’t cost you too many votes but targeting meat and dairy producers will, at the very least, provoke an angry backlash from traditional Tory voters.

The case for dietary change

Yet the fact remains that the CCC studied the evidence and came to the conclusion that dietary change is needed. It recommends a 20% shift away from meat and dairy products to plant-based options by 2030, with a further 15% reduction of meat products by 2050. It would mean weekly per person meat consumption dropping from 960g in 2019 to 730g in 2035 and 630g in 2050.

It would be easier for the government to dismiss the need for dietary change if the emissions reduction benefit was marginal, but it’s not. The CCC states that a continued shift in diets away from meat products is a “particularly important” demand-side measure in its 2035 and 2050 scenarios along with a slowdown in growth of flying and reductions in travel demand.

Its pathway for diets would reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 7 MtCO2e by 2035 rising to nearly 10 MtCO2e by 2050, far in excess of the 1 MtCO2e that could be saved by making improvements to agricultural productivity.

Of course, the CCC’s remit is to look narrowly at greenhouse gas emissions. The government may conclude that the value of the meat and dairy industry in supporting good nutrition, rural livelihoods and the UK’s export performance, for example, is an acceptable trade-off for high levels of emissions. But should it not at least be required to come clean about its thinking on the matter? And then present detailed modelling for how it intends to make up the emissions shortfall?

Political inertia doesn't mean dietary change won't happen. It just means it'll continue to be driven by the market and the public. Plant-based innovation shows little sign of waning, while last week Burger King pledged to focus on meat reduction as part of a 2030 target to cut supply chain emissions by 41% per restaurant against 2019 levels.

Still, sales of meat and dairy continue to hold firm and there is no sign that animal products are disappearing from our collective plates any time soon. New research from the World Resources Institute suggests that despite ranking environmentally friendly diets as an important priority young adults are eating more meat than older people.

The reduction in meat and dairy recommended by the CCC is a substantial shift but it hardly represents an agricultural apocalypse. A recent Food, Farming and Countryside Commission report modelled what a UK diet would look like in 2030 through a shift to agroecological farming methods. It concluded that although pork and chicken consumption would reduce significantly, beef would see a relatively smaller reduction and sheep would be held constant as a result of their role in nutrient cycling and fertility.

Under this scenario, and given the reliance of the foodservice sector in particular on imported meat, UK farmers producing red meat to high standards may even stand to benefit if calls to eat ‘less and better’ meat translate into actual consumer behaviour.

Ultimately, the debate over meat’s impact is, and will remain, complex and contentious. It will continue to rage with or without the government’s involvement, but it’s surely time political leaders at least joined the conversation.

1 Response

  1. More intelligent and insightful analysis from the excellent Footprint editorial team.

    I agree with the conclusions – particularly the assertion that these are primarily political rather than health decisions. Advising voters what they should eat does not sit easy with a PM (and a Cabinet) that is populist and libertarian. In circumstances where they have had to severely curb civil liberties for over a year because of the pandemic, they will be looking at this challenge as a poison chalice for their popularity with voters – farmers or not.

    As a result it looks increasingly likely that they have decided to let public opinion be the driver of any diet change.

    An interesting and enjoyable read. Thank you.