The Friday digest: books, blogs and better meat

CCC publishes net-zero report panning agri-food policies, farmer blog-rants about NGOs, experts attempt to define ‘better and less’ meat, and chicken is apparently cheaper than chickpeas 

After the brevity of the new food strategy for England earlier this month comes 619 pages from the climate change committee detailing progress in reducing emissions. In summary: the government is half-decent at setting targets and talking about its net-zero ambitions but is taking what the committee refers to as a “high wire approach” to actually delivering them. “It’s kind of ironic that the CCC has named this a ‘progress report’ when the government’s progress on climate policy is grinding to a standstill,” said Greenpeace UK’s Ami McCarthy.

Progress in reducing farming emissions has been particularly “glacial”, according to the committee. Despite being vital to delivering net-zero, agriculture and land use have “the weakest policies”, it warned, with the government’s strategy of a fortnight ago (33 pages) doing little to address this. There is too much reliance on technology and too little on demand-side measures. 

The experts said government should consider influencing diet shifts through for example mandating plant-based options in public settings and requesting health and education providers to incorporate carbon footprinting in their menus. The former is certainly gaining steam while the latter results in it spurting from Jeremy Clarkson’s ears (The fast car fanatic turned farmer has been a vocal critic of moves by local authorities to serve plant-based meals at events). The CCC wants to see “slightly less but better meat and dairy” consumed. 

What constitutes ‘better’ is debatable (as this Footprint­ report found). Cue a timely paper in the journal Nature Food this week which covered the definitions of ‘less but better meat’ used in scientific literature. Authors Kajsa Resare Sahlin and Joanna Trewern found that interpretations of better meat spanned environmental sustainability, improved animal welfare and nutrition but there was much less clarity on which farming systems achieve these outcomes. Social and economic themes like workers’ livelihoods were also “largely missing” from the conversation. “More work needs to be done to establish a vision of future livestock production systems that have improved outcomes across sustainability themes and can be agreed on by a wide range of stakeholders,” they wrote.

Which brings us to a poll, commissioned by WWF, showing that more than 70% of British adults want the UK government to provide more support, including payments, for farmers that invest in farming practices that tackle climate change as well as benefit wildlife and nature. 

New research by Rothamsted meanwhile has showed that the high crop yields usually obtained using man-made fertilisers can instead be achieved through a combination of more environmentally friendly practices (such as growing a greater range of crops, planting beans or clover to enhance soil fertility, and adding manure and compost to soils). 

That will be music to the ears for producers facing eye-watering chemical fertiliser costs. The UK agricultural partnership met this week to discuss soil health, as well as the potential for soil carbon markets. NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy has been Facebooking and blogging recently about the positive carbon content in his soils. He used the results to have a dig at environmental NGOs that want to turn agricultural policy “on its head, and to focus support mostly on the environment rather than on food production”. Green groups that kick farmers for damaging the land are talking “bollocks”, he reportedly said in a Facebook post.

Clarkson will be pleased – both with the sentiment and the language. The title of the latest episode of Ends Report’s Eco Chamber podcast – Dirty dairy, polluting poultry and muck-spreading mayhem – suggests there is another side to the story, too. Farm pollution is a topic to watch.

Farmers have also been shouting about the protein transition this week – via a report from ProVeg International looking at the opportunities and challenges in shifting from traditional animal products to alternatives. The research with farming groups covers everything from regenerative approaches and algae aquaculture to the production of plant-based proteins and cultured meat.

Research recent got underway to determine whether cultured meat is a threat or an opportunity to UK farmers. Led by the Royal Agricultural University, the work will explore what the concept means for “a range of real-life agricultural businesses” and help to shape policy as interest in the products gathers momentum.

Regulators in the US and Europe are under pressure to follow Singapore’s lead in approving the first cultured meat for sale (chicken nuggets, naturally). The Food Standards Association’s research shows a third of UK consumers are willing to give them a try but see insects as a safer bet. Plants are the alternative protein of choice currently, though,

New polling of 1,500 UK shoppers by the Vegan Society shows 35% are scaling back on meat or cutting it out altogether in a bid to stretch their weekly food budget. More than half (53%) said they’d be interested to try a vegan diet provided the savings are made clear. The society has helpfully published some evidence here showing that split red lentils, peanut butter and baked beans are the cheapest proteins per portion. 

The fact that chicken is fourth, ahead of chickpeas and kidney beans, is surely cause for concern. So too news provided by BigHospitality that Honest Burgers is to convert its all-vegan V Honest site close to London’s Leicester Square back to its core concept (we’ve asked why and await a response). The move has worked for the likes of Pret A Manger but Brits (and tourists) obviously still want the option of beef in their burgers and cheese on their chips (though scientists are getting closer to mimicking dairy cheese by using yellow peas, reports Anthropcene).

The good news is that Honest is leading the charge towards regenerative farming – which it defines as “farming with as little impact on the soil and environment as possible”. By 2024 all its 40 restaurants will be serving beef from such farms. Whether that fits the definition of ‘better’ is, it seems, moot (see also last week’s Digest).

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