The heat in the meat debate

Consumption of meat fell 17% in the 10 years to 2019. That’s good news for the planet but not producers. David Burrows reports.

Average meat consumption per capita per day has fallen 17% – from 103.7g in 2008 to 86.3g in 2019, according to research published in The Lancet.

Using data recorded in the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS), Cristina Stewart and her colleagues from the University of Oxford showed that the proportion of people describing themselves as meat consumers decreased by three percentage points, while those identifying as vegetarian or vegan increased by three percentage points.

The overall changes in meat intake equate to a 35% reduction in the amount of land and a 23% reduction in the amount of freshwater needed to rear livestock, as well as a 28% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture overall.

The trends are encouraging – unless you are a beef or sheep farmer – given that meat is among the highest emitting food products. Most dramatic was the reduction in red and processed meat. 

Consumption of white meat increased, however. “Each day, people in the UK now eat 5.7g less beef, 3.9g less lamb and 4.2g less sausage. But at the same time, people are eating more white meat, mostly chicken,” Stewart wrote on theconversation.com.

This growing preference for poultry likely reflects dietary health guidance. The researchers noted a “need to raise awareness regarding the environmental impact of white meat”.

Campaigners have been doing just that. The Soil Association recently called for chicken consumption to peak next year, with legal limits set on intensive poultry production and public procurement standards pushing plants over poultry.

The debate over farming emissions is, if anything, getting dirtier. While some are pitching regenerative systems one way of mitigating livestock-related emissions, others appear to be lobbying for the opposite. 

In September, Greenpeace Unearthed reported that “a group of industry associations including the International Meat Secretariat and International Poultry Council called for the UN to support increased meat consumption worldwide, arguing that ‘advances in intensive livestock systems’ would ‘contribute to the preservation of planetary resources’.” 

An increase in meat consumption would be hard to swallow given recent research published in Nature Food, which estimated that food systems account for 35% of global total anthropogenic emissions. Over half of those (57%) correspond to the production of animal-based foods (including livestock feed), compared to 29% from plant-based foods and 14% to “other” commodities not explicitly turned into food or feed.

And yet food was largely ignored at COP26 (as it was in similar crunch climate talks five years ago). It is often put in a box labelled ‘too hard to fix’, suggested farmer Tom Clarke in a webinar organised by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit as part of Countryside COP week in October.

He has a point. Farming emissions remain depressingly stagnant but politicians remain largely silent on what to do about it. Liz Bowles from the Soil Association said farmers need to move to production systems that align with net-zero and are biodiversity positive. However, they also need to “look for opportunities to change what they produce”.

The UK government has ignored the need for dietary change in its new net-zero strategy but talk of meat consumption cuts won’t go away. The Committee on Climate Change has set a target for at least a 20% reduction in beef, lamb, and dairy consumption by 2030. That should, based on Dixon’s findings, be achievable.

But that target is a modest one. Some academics have argued that beef consumption in the UK must be cut far, far more meaning “a substantial change in dietary habits, probably requiring substantial intervention”, Stewart wrote. 

And there is conjecture too about how much faith we should place in data based on people’s reported meat consumption habits, as is the case with The Lancet study, versus actual sales or production-based data.

Just ahead of COP26, the concept of a meat tax reared its politically unpalatable head again thanks to a paper in the BMJ. The authors proposed “removing subsidies on high emission products such as livestock and fossil fuels and using taxes and other price based mechanisms to reflect the emissions associated with different products and activities”. 

There is little chance of that happening anytime soon. As Henry Dimbleby noted in his national food strategy for England, the idea of a meat tax was a “non-starter. Every time we raised it, the atmosphere would suddenly crackle with hostility.” 

Food emissions may have not got a look in at COP, but ignoring them will only heat the debate on what to do about them.

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