Plant-based push must be a policy priority

Shifting people’s diets takes time, which is why the government’s climate change advisors have called for action now. David Burrows reports.

The Climate Change Committee recently published two reports and 32 pages of recommendations to the government on progress made towards reducing emissions to net-zero and adapting to climate change. They make for sobering (but unsurprising) reading. CCC chairman Lord Deben said the government must now “get real on delivery”.

There are hundreds of pages to pick through but one of the ‘priority recommendations’ caught my eye. “Implement measures to encourage consumers to shift diets” including “low-cost, low-regret actions to encourage a 20% shift away from all meat by 2030, rising to 35% by 2050, and a 20% shift from dairy products by 2030”. Last week, Henry Dimbleby went further still in his national food strategy for England in calling for a 30% drop in meat consumption by 2032.

There are “signs” of potential consumer willingness to shift towards lower carbon diets, the CCC noted, but it’s not happening fast enough. Consumption of meat and meat products actually went up 3% between 2015/16 and 2018/19. Right now politicians need to come up with “an evidence-based strategy to establish options for successful behaviour shifts and demonstrate public sector leadership”.

So how do you shift behaviour – and quickly? With difficulty. As Joanna Trewern, sustainable diets and behaviour change specialist at WWF-UK, suggests, “there is an opportunity in foods that is market driven that we haven't necessarily seen in other sectors, which is really positive. But I think the barrier is always going to be that people are a lot more attached to the food they eat than, for example, their energy provider.”

The 2020 Globescan healthy and sustainable living report – based on online surveying of 27,000 people in 27 countries – categorised reducing waste and saving energy as ‘high interest, low difficulty’. At the opposite corner of the matrix was dietary change, classified as ‘low interest, high difficulty’.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) recently polled almost 7,000 people to determine their awareness of climate change and their perceptions of the lifestyle changes required to meet net-zero. Halving the amount of meat and dairy people eat was seen as the least likely change to occur in the next few decades.

A survey by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) also shows the appetite to eat less meat and dairy and more plant-based foods isn’t quite as strong as you might think. “The promotion of plant-based diets struggled to get majority support in any of the countries surveyed,” according to UNDP’s poll.  

This could be for a number of reasons, of which three were singled out. The lack of plant-based options is a problem in some countries. “We do need to make it cheaper, easier, more attractive, more socially normal, to do the things that we want people to do,” Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist at the University of Bath, told me recently.

Price and convenience are key for changes in food consumption – and there are signs of progress within the plant-based space. Co-op Food for example has promised to slash the price of its plant-based products. It shouldn’t cost more to follow vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian diets, said the company’s CEO for food Jo Whitfield. Ikea, meanwhile, has committed to make the healthy and sustainable choice “more accessible and attractive”.

Ranges and options are increasing all the time, but businesses can certainly make them better. There is plenty of guidance and research on how caterers can drive non-meat sales, for example. How vegan and vegetarian fare is described can also be a powerful pull. “[…] language that describes rewarding eating experiences can be used to facilitate the shift toward healthy and sustainable diets,” noted experts in research published in the journal Appetite last year.

Ignorance of the impact dietary choices have is another factor picked out by UNDP. A report by Chatham House in 2015 found “very, very low” understanding of the link between what people eat and greenhouse gas emissions. Now these messages are everywhere; and yet as an Ipsos Mori survey found they’re either not hitting home or just being ignored. “If we wait for everyone to realise the sustainability motive we’ll be too late,” says Esther Papies, lead author of the Appetite paper and a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Glasgow.

Which brings us to the third of the UNDP factors: that “people may have felt that diet is more of a personal choice than something that can be ‘promoted’”. This is one reason politicians are steering clear of advocating for a fall in meat consumption. Or rather, most are. France’s environment minister, Barbara Pompili, recently had a dig at countries relying on technology to achieve emissions reductions. She said “ways of life” would also need to change.

There is hope though. Diets do change. As the CCC’s behaviour science specialist Professor Nick Chater noted in his December 2020 reportNet zero after covid: behavioural principles for building back better – some surveys indicate a lack of enthusiasm for anything more than a modest shift away from meat and dairy consumption.

But dietary norms in the UK and elsewhere have changed “very rapidly” in the past few decades. Think of the shift away from the traditional ‘meat-and-two-veg’ meal to the huge range of ready-meals, fast foods, and dishes from cuisines across the world. “Given that our dietary status quo is continually in flux, the possibility of very significant positive dietary change, from the point of view of both health and the environment, is entirely possible in the near future,” Chater wrote.

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