We need to talk about meat
30 November 2015 - Sue Dibb

December’s climate change negotiations in Paris are focussing the world’s attention on the challenge of preventing dangerous climate change. Where does meat fit in the mix?

For most of us greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions mean emissions from energy; we think about transport (the cars we drive and the flights we take) or about protecting forests.  But rarely do we think about what we eat.

The food we eat carries a huge environmental footprint and meat in particular is a hotspot for GHG emissions. When I first learned that global GHG emissions from livestock are equivalent to the emissions from transport – like most people, I initially found it hard to believe. Alongside widespread climate change scepticism or indifference, cow burps are just another bad joke.

Yet feeding a growing and more affluent global population healthily, fairly and sustainably simply isn’t possible unless we make some changes. Reducing food waste and producing food with less harmful impacts on the environment are both essential but not sufficient. Modifying our eating patterns must be a priority too.

Research from Cambridge University shows that without radical shifts in global meat consumption it is unlikely that temperatures can be kept below 2oC – the threshold for ‘dangerous’ climate change.

And halving world consumption of grain-fed meat could also ensure two billion more people in the world have enough to eat. Currently 97% of soymeal and over a third of the global grain harvest is fed to intensively produced farm animals including pigs and chickens.

Yet despite all the evidence of benefits for a fairer, greener and healthier future of shifting towards eating patterns with more plants and less meat, talking about meat remains a tricky issue.

Eating meat has strong cultural traditions and meanings that are often associated with ‘manliness’ and wealth. Even where a high meat eating culture hasn’t previously existed in developing countries, it is now becoming an aspirational item on the weekly shopping list. This is helped along by meat’s increasing affordability among the world’s growing middle class.

With powerful industry and economic interests, an ‘eat less meat’ message is a cause few politicians want to champion. Therecent US political decision to reject scientific advice to include sustainability in national dietary guidelines was largely driven by an industry backlash.

It is important to acknowledge the complexities in this debate. It would be wrong to demonise all meat: moderate consumption provides essential nutrients. And while red meat such as beef often unfairly bears the brunt of anti-meat sentiment, the fact is that all meat carries a relatively high carbon footprint.

The contribution of livestock to climate change is also complicated by the positive role that permanent pasture for grazing sheep and cattle plays in storing carbon in the soil. And when the ethics of animal welfare are included – with pigs and poultry facing the most intensive systems with high levels of antibiotic use – then a message of eating less of all types of meat – and choosing better (i.e. higher welfare, grass fed, outdoor reared)  when you do eat it, is a more appropriate and nuanced message.

It’s a message that has growing resonance. There is increasing awareness of and interest in flexitarianism, (the on-trend word for meat-reducers), particularly among young people.  But the challenge is how to engage those people who are not already aware of the debate.

Eating Better recently brought together behaviour change experts to learn from ourLet’s Talk About Meat research and the experiences of other behaviour change campaigns.  Raising awareness is an important first step, but it’s not enough. We know that to help people then make changes, we need to make it easy and the norm – for example what their friends and family do.  Most of us are aware of the ‘5 a day’ message to eat more fruit and veg, but most people fall short. That’s largely because we haven’t made it easy, affordable and convenient.

What drives much of our behaviour is our environment – the food choices we’re offered.  And here food companies have an important role to play and some are leading the way.  Eating Better’s lunchtimesandwich survey earlier this year found only 17 out of 620 options from supermarkets and high street chains were plant-based based. Since then, Pret a Manger has announced it’s introducing more vegan and vegetarian choices.

Companies like IKEA and contract caterers Sodexo are reducing the GHG impacts of not just their operations but also the food they serve. Top chefs, such as Bruno Loubet, are putting vegetables centre-plate. And British company Quorn is seeing growth and new market opportunities among meat eaters wanting to eat less.  A message for companies making change overtly or by stealth – such as adding more veggies and reducing meat in dishes – is that taste needs to be a top priority.

There’s no silver bullet to creating the kind of cultural and system changes necessary to transform the way we eat – we can’t legislate for behaviour change or hope for a technological fix. But we can all do more to talk about meat, to take actions ourselves and in our organisations, and to push for commitments by all – governments, food businesses, educators, civil society organisations, researchers – for a fairer, greener and healthier future.

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