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Meating the net-zero challenge?

3 min read

Will ministers have the stomach to tell us to eat less meat in their overdue Food Strategy white paper? And does the public have the appetite for change?

Food production accounts for around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, but the role of government in nudging public eating habits to achieve its climate goals is contentious. Although scientists have long singled out methane produced by cattle as a significant contributor, it remains to be seen if ministers will propose new ways to tackle this in a government Food Strategy white paper due this month. 

“The government has a responsibility to address global warming. But should it tell us what to eat? No!” Tom Martin, a sixth-generation farmer from Cambridgeshire, tells The House. “Livestock are a cornerstone of regenerative agriculture. For the government to discourage this would be a short-sighted own goal.”

You can play your part simply by considering where your food is from

Some green groups, however, believe official guidance on meat consumption is a missing piece of the UK’s net-zero jigsaw. The government’s 368-page Net Zero Strategy, published in October, does not mention “meat” once and references “beef” only in relation to plans for environmental permitting set out in the 2019 Clean Air Strategy.

“We cannot cut emissions while ignoring meat and dairy,” says Clare Oxborrow, an analyst at Friends of the Earth, adding that the government should encourage sustainable diets and plant-based alternatives to meat through its food procurement for schools, hospitals and prisons. “Businesses are way ahead,” she says. “They see demand for plant-based food as a long-term trend.”

The UK public has shown growing support for net-zero policies – but appears less enthusiastic about measures to provoke a change in consumption habits. Of eight net-zero policies surveyed by Ipsos MORI in October, taxes on meat and dairy were the least popular. Yet Britain may have already passed its meat peak. A recent study in The Lancet found meat consumption in the UK had fallen 17 per cent in the last decade. 

Some UK farming groups argue provenance is the key to reducing the climate impact of food. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) says UK farming has made progress in reducing its carbon footprint as it aims for net-zero food production by 2040. It says emissions from UK beef production are around half the global average, due to its extensive grass-based system.

“When people buy British meat and dairy, they buy sustainable, local food,” Stuart Roberts, deputy president of the NFU, tells The House. “The same cannot always be said for plant-based proteins.

You can play your part simply by considering where your food is from.”

The government promised to respond to the independent National Food Strategy, published in July 2021, with a white paper within six months. 

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says the government has no plans to introduce a meat tax, but is considering measures to encourage sustainable diets and change public sector procurement of food.

While farmers wait to see whether the government will move to persuade or compel people to eat less meat – or avoid the issue altogether – some, such as Coombe Farm Organic, which produces organic pork, beef and lamb in Somerset, believe consumers can do their bit by supporting more environmentally friendly producers. 

“Buying less meat means you can choose to spend a little more on better quality meat that has been sustainably sourced,” Jemima Marks, a manager at Coombe Farm, tells The House. “Buying local, grass-fed meat that has been reared at the speed nature intended can reduce food miles and help sequester carbon.” 

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