Ministers miss meaty environmental opportunity

Policies aimed at curbing meat consumption are conspicuous by their absence from the government’s new food strategy. By David Burrows.

Henry Dimbleby’s national food strategy for England ran to 164 pages. The government’s long-awaited response mustered just 33, so rather than poring through what’s in it, most analysis has focused on what’s not. 

There is one significant swerve. Meat is mentioned just twice – and nowhere in relation to consumption. The word crops up on average in one of every four pages across Dimbleby’s paper, which devoted an entire chapter to “the complexities of meat” and warned that “there is currently no way to produce enough food, restore nature and sequester carbon while eating the same amount of meat. To get everything we need from the land, we will have to cut overall meat consumption by 30% [by 2032].”

Ministers were minded to ignore this advice. “It's a cop out,” said Jimmy Pierson, director of ProVeg UK, “a dereliction of duty”, he added, pointing to research showing the considerable footprint of food-related emissions in the UK and the savings from eating less meat and more plants. Government advisors on the Climate Change Committee (CCC), who have also concluded that achieving net-zero means eating 20% less meat and dairy by 2030, said they have “set out the case to improve the agricultural sector time and again”. 

Is anyone listening? Politically, meat remains an unpalatable topic. It is notable that when asked by the House of Lords environment committee how behaviour change will be achieved in sectors where there are fewer technological options for reducing emissions, like meat and dairy, environment secretary George Eustice began by referring to charges on plastic bags and a ban on plastic straws. Eventually he got to his point. 

“People will often reduce this debate to one that asks, ‘Should we run an advertising campaign to tell people to stop eating meat’? he said, but “the debate about meat consumption is more nuanced than people would see at first sight”. A fair observation. As Dimbleby put it, not all meat is created equal: emissions from beef production can vary considerably between countries and farms, for example. 

British is best, or at least better than most, say farmers here (AHDB figures suggest a kilo of beef from the UK has half the footprint of the global average). Initiatives like the Sustainable Food Trust’s (SFT) global farm metric to track on-farm sustainability – which continues to gather pace – should provide more evidence, as well as a chance to reduce production impacts further. Dairy companies are already accounting for greenhouse gas emissions from pints of milk and benchmarking producers against the best. 

Protein positives

Progress in reducing emissions from agriculture has been “modest” since 2011, admits the NFU. That food companies have started to look at sourcing ‘better meat’ and ‘better dairy’, offering premiums for producers who reach sustainability targets is therefore good news. By the end of this year, 12 Honest Burgers restaurants will be making burgers with beef from regenerative farms; in two years, it’ll be on the menu in all 40 sites as the company shifts to regenerative farming in a bid to reduce the environmental footprint of the beef side of its business.

Morrisons, meanwhile, has just launched a sustainable beef and lamb scheme with financial incentives for using ‘sustainable feed’, as well as subsidised environmental audits and soil testing and free advice to help curb carbon emissions. The soil sequestration potential of grass-reared livestock will be hotly debated. The SFT has just called for reductions in pork and poultry consumption but not beef and lamb – provided the cows and sheep are reared in sustainable, regenerative systems. 

There are moves to try and feed chickens on insects rather soya, as well as change the diets of ruminants in order to manage methane. New tech is helping remove more protein and fat from every carcass, reducing waste. All of this is positive but will it get us to net-zero? 

Eustice thinks so. The answers will come from innovation within the industry rather than interventions into individual choices, he told peers. “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. 

Eustice could not be coaxed into saying whether meat consumption needs to fall, caveating each answer very carefully to avoid the c-word. He even had a dig at soya milk. People might think they were doing the right thing for the planet; but they could be aiding and abetting deforestation, he suggested. No mention, there, of the soya used to feed chickens though. 

Taxes and targets

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).

But such a target is almost as unlikely as a meat tax. Which means it’ll be up to food companies to shift behaviour. 

The results of a snap poll of 2,311 people by Eating Better, published in the wake of the government’s new strategy, showed 24% of people are eating less meat than they were in 2020 and 16% are now only eating meat once or twice a week. This shift is backed up by a new Food Standards Agency report which uses national diet and nutrition survey data to show that between 2008 and 2019 an average adult in England reported eating less than the recommended maximum of 70g of red and processed meat per day (for men it’s 69g and women 44g). 

Further reductions are needed and it shouldn’t be forgotten that people are eating more chicken than they were in 2008. “We simply cannot reduce methane emissions to a safe level, nor free up the land we need for sequestering carbon, without reducing the amount of meat we eat,” said Dimbleby.

Protein alternatives will undoubtedly help the shift away from meat and poultry. Within the strategy there is a section on these but they are positioned as complimentary to traditional livestock sectors rather than offering substitution potential – a case of having your chicken and chickpea alternative but eating both. 

In its net-zero update report last week, the CCC noted that meat consumption is reducing at “an encouraging rate” yet there are “no policies in place to capitalise on this momentum”. So brands will need to pull every marketing lever and trick in the book to nudge more consumers into sustainable buying patterns – especially if government isn’t prepared to offer a shove or two. 

Store and restaurant environments will need to change, so too menus and product portfolios; plant-based products will need to be tasty and tempting. Better meat options will also need a boost. All this then needs to be carefully promoted and priced competitively because it is cost not environmental impact that still drives purchasing decisions for the many (research on sandwich options published by Eating Better last week showed some foodservice and supermarket brands placing a premium on plants).

Consumption discomfort

The Vegan Society’s latest survey showed that 35% of supermarket shoppers are cutting back on meat as bills rise. Still, the cost of living crisis could also push people (and businesses) towards less sustainable, industrially produced meat. The CCC says consumption must shift to “slightly less but better meat and dairy” but the FSA has warned that people are currently making “uncomfortable compromises” around their environment, health and wider ethical values as price overpowers their purchasing decisions.

Last week the agency said it was concerned that the current crisis could make a healthier and sustainable diet “feel an unreachable goal” as it highlighted the need for food policy to “keep pace with consumers’ expectations, concerns, behaviours, and values”. There is little evidence of that in this shallow new strategy on food. The private sector will have to lead the less but better meat movement because ministers have missed their opportunity. 

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