Fresh research from the University of Oxford has found (once again) that reducing meat intake is overwhelmingly better for the environment. But in times of surging inflation, what can the UK government do to drive down meat consumption if it can’t drive up prices?
A study carried out by the Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP) project at the University of Oxford has shown that the relationship between meat consumption and harmful environmental impacts is clear.
The comprehensive research compared the dietary data of more than 55,000 UK vegans, vegetarians, fish eaters and meat eaters with greenhouse gas emissions, land use, eutrophication risk, potential biodiversity loss and water use, finding that eating less meat was beneficial across the board.
According to the analysis, the dietary impacts of vegans were a quarter those of high meat eaters (those consuming 100 grams of meat per day, equivalent to one beef burger) for greenhouse gas emissions, land use and eutrophication; a third for biodiversity loss; and less than half for water use.
Meanwhile, a low-meat diet (less than 50 grams of meat per day) reduced all indicators by at least a fifth when compared to a high-meat diet.
The starkest contrast was found for methane (CH4) emissions, a highly potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 28 times greater than carbon dioxide (CO2) on a 100-year timescale. The investigation showed a low-meat diet can decrease daily CH4 emissions by 55% when compared to high-meat eaters, while a vegan diet saw them fall by a whopping 93%.
Published in July, the LEAP study becomes the latest in a litany of data and research showing that a reduction in meat intake can reduce our impacts on the planet. With the evidence mounting, how the UK implements change based on these findings becomes the pertinent question.
Results from the LEAP study: Relative environmental footprint from global warming potential (CO2 equivalent) over 100 years, land use, water use, eutrophication potential and biodiversity impact of diet groups in comparison to high meat-eaters (high meat eaters are given a relative area of one).
Speaking to The Climate in response to LEAP’s findings, a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) stated: “People should make their own decisions around the food they eat.”
Despite DEFRA’s indifference to the issue, the UK government has committed to a 78% reduction in GHG emissions by 2035 compared to 1990 and to halting biodiversity loss by 2030. As the evidence points out, reducing the population’s intake of animal products will play an important role in achieving these legally mandated goals.
The government’s own advisors agree. The 2021 National Food Strategy (NFS), an independent review commissioned by the government to set out a plan for a better food system, called for a 30% reduction in meat consumption by 2032 (compared to 2019), stating the change “is required to achieve the 5th Carbon Budget and the 30×30 nature commitment[s]”.
The Sixth Carbon Budget from the UK’s Climate Change Committee (UKCCC), published in 2020, sang the same tune, suggesting that “demand-side policies are also needed to (…) encourage a reduction in consumption of meat and dairy”.
In response to the NFS, the government published its own food strategy in June of last year; the 33-page plan mentions the word “meat” just twice, neither in the context of reducing how much of it people eat. Instead, the government opted to undertake randomised control trials to help develop “evidence based and value for money interventions”.
By most estimates, meat consumption in the UK is falling. One study published in The Lancet estimated that the amount of meat eaten per day in the UK fell by 17% between 2008 and 2018, a figure that has become widely accepted. Other research puts the reduction at much smaller values of 5% or below. Regardless of which is correct, none matches the pace suggested by the NFS and other reports.
A key driver of growth in vegetarianism and veganism in recent years has been the increasing availability of meat-free products. But, after an explosive burst onto supermarket shelves over the last decade or so, the once promising meat alternatives market now appears to be faltering.
Earlier this year, the popular UK-based brand Meatless Farm called in the administrators after a poorer than expected financial performance. Meanwhile, U.S. meat-free giant Beyond Meat, once valued at more than $10 billion, has seen its share prices plummet by 95% since their all-time high in 2019. If sales of veggie sausages and burgers are anything to go off (by all means they are not the whole picture), the meat reduction ‘trend’ might not be so hot anymore.
If the government should intervene, how should they do it?
Taxation is a weapon of choice long favoured by governments looking to shift palettes away from unhealthy habits.
In the case of tobacco, authorities levy duties on cigarette purchases, thereby increasing the cost for consumers. Increasing the cost of meat may well drive down demand, but with the cost of living crisis already squeezing household budgets, the political feasibility of such a policy is remote.
Instead, a report by the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change recommends “a food carbon tax to be levied on all food producers” as part of the solution. Such a policy could model itself after the ‘Sugar Tax,’ which the UK implemented in 2018 to target drink manufacturers based on sugar levels in their recipes. Many beverage companies reformulated their products as a result, which may have prevented thousands of cases of obesity, according to research from the University of Cambridge.
Implementing supply-side disincentives isn’t without its pitfalls, however. “The UK meat industry is actually lower emitting than most other countries,” explains Dr. Ishani Rao, an NHS GP associated with Eco Medics and Plant Based Health Professionals, “so implementing supply-side measures could potentially increase imports, which in turn will increase emissions. It’s therefore vital to reduce consumer demands.
“Carbon labelling is an interesting proposition to the problem,” Rao continues. “I know that Sweden [has] been doing this for years, and in a survey by the Carbon Trust of over 10,000 people from the UK, the U.S., Spain, Sweden, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, the majority of people support carbon labelling.” She was keen to express some scepticism about labelling, however, since it can make people feel “guilty and responsible for climate change” while deflecting from the need for broader systemic change.
As a starting point, Peter Scarborough, professor of population health at the University of Oxford and lead author of the LEAP study, suggests a policy of advice and information. “We know that information based campaigns don’t do very much on their own, but they can be powerful as a statement of the government’s intentions,” he says.
“For example, the UK government’s Eatwell Guide is its definition of a healthy diet. As it has this definition, it is reasonable for us to hold the government to account and ask how they intend to achieve this healthy diet. And as a result you have a raft of public health policies, [including] Change4Life campaigns, front-of-pack food labelling, restrictions on broadcast advertising and taxes on sugary drinks.
“At the moment, the UK government does not have a definition of a ‘healthy, sustainable diet’ and this is a major challenge to push for policies to implement a sustainable diet. (…) We need to review the Eatwell Guide to incorporate sustainability of food (alongside health). This in itself will not provoke change, but it will enable policies that could support the population to eat a healthier, more sustainable diet,” Scarborough concludes.
Whichever tack this or subsequent governments take to reduce the meat intake of the UK’s population, the message from researchers and campaigners is clear: any policy is better than no policy, which is where we’re at right now.