Should the government be urging us to eat less meat to combat climate change?
The government has been conspicuously quiet since the Climate Change Committee warned last year that we need to consume 20 percent less meat and dairy by 2030 to achieve our net zero targets. Will ministers have the stomach to tell us to eat less meat in an upcoming food white paper, and does the public have the appetite for change?
While food production accounts for around a quarter of global emissions, the role of government in nudging public behaviour on eating habits to achieve its climate goals remains contentious.
“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, told The House. "Livestock are a cornerstone of regenerative agriculture. For the government to discourage this would be a short-sighted own goal."
Some green groups 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.
“We cannot cut emissions while ignoring meat and dairy," said Clare Oxborrow, a senior sustainability analyst at Friends of the Earth. "The more time ministers waste fretting about a backlash, the harder it will become to prevent climate chaos."
Instead, the government could do more to encourage sustainable diets and plant-based alternatives to meat through its procurement of food for schools, hospitals, care homes and prisons, she said. “Businesses are way ahead,” Oxborrow added. "They see demand for plant-based food as a long-term trend."
The UK public has shown growing support for net-zero policies, but it is less enthusiastic about fiscal measures to provoke a change in consumption habits. Of eight net-zero policies surveyed by Ipsos MORI, taxes on meat and dairy were the least popular.
A study by Ethical Consumer also found that only 39 per cent of people were willing to reduce meat consumption by enough to meet our emission goals. But Rob Harrison, director of the campaign group, believes changing our diets may not require heavy-handed coercion.
When people buy British meat and dairy they buy sustainable, local food
"With actions such as rebalancing agricultural policy and investment in alternatives, it may be possible to realise change without much cajoling," he said. "Surveys show that younger people are also more willing to reduce meat consumption for environmental reasons."
The UK may have already past its meat peak. A study in The Lancet published in October found that meat consumption in the UK had fallen 17 percent in the last decade. By contrast, the number of Brits adopting a plant-based diet had risen threefold since 2019. Earlier this month, Veganuary, a campaign set up by a husband-and-wife team that urges people to adopt a vegan diet for 31 days, said two million people had signed up since its launch in 2014.
Some UK farming groups argue that provenance and buying local is the key to reducing the climate impact of food. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU), the UK’s largest representative body for agriculture and horticulture, said the UK farming industry had made strides in reducing its carbon footprint as it aims for net-zero food production by 2040. It said emissions from UK beef production were 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, told 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."
In October, a research paper which the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy later admitted it published in error set out steps to normalise plant-based food in schools and impose a carbon tax to make lower meat consumption a "desirable social norm." Shortly afterwards, the government said the paper was not policy and the paper was deleted from its website.
The government promised to respond to the independent National Food Strategy, written by Henry Dimbleby and published in July 2021 with a white paper within six months.
The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) told The House that the government had no plans to introduce a meat tax, but was considering measures to encourage sustainable diets and change public sector procurement of food.
“We will support farmers to adopt low carbon practices and increase carbon stored on farms,” a spokesperson said.
That is likely to be welcomed by farmers like Martin, who believe sustainable farming methods are the best approach.
"On our farm we are working to store carbon and produce nutritious food using fewer artificial inputs," he explained. "This depends on soil health; it’s the biggest opportunity to actually reverse climate change."
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