Today
Sat 23 October 2021

Stuart Spray explores the links between climate change, meat production and why the Government has refused to implement the recommendations of its own watchdog

The links between the greenhouse gases (GHGs) causing climate change and the meat-producing industry are well documented.

Statistics from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation show that meat production accounts for 14.5% of GHGs released into the atmosphere worldwide, with red meat responsible for 41% of those emissions.

Research conducted by Oxford University in 2018 concluded that the consumption of beef in the West needs to be reduced by 90% in order to combat climate change. A second study identified eating less meat as one of the best ways for individuals to reduce their carbon footprint.

Last January, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – the UK’s climate change watchdog, which is responsible for policing plans for reducing carbon emissions – published the UK’s sixth Carbon Budget, mapping the UK’s path to meet the Government’s net zero GHG emissions by 2050 target. One of the key recommendations in the report was to reduce the demand for carbon intensive activities including a 20% reduction in consumption of high-carbon meat and dairy products by 2030. However, progress on this target has stalled.

Sixteen months after that proposal and hidden in the ‘notes to editors’ of a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) news release in April with the headline ‘UK Enshrines New Target in Law to Slash Emissions by 78% by 2035’, the Government stated that it did not intend to implement the CCC’s 20% reduction in meat target.

“Following the CCC’s recommended budget level does not mean we are following their specific policy recommendations,” it said. “Our published analysis is based on the Government’s own assumptions and does not, for example, assume the CCC’s change in people’s diet.”

The CCC is adamant that meeting the climate targets set by Parliament will require people moving towards lower-carbon choices. A spokesperson for the CCC told Byline Times: “Our analysis shows that over half the emissions reductions needed to meet the UK’s Sixth Carbon Budget involve some element of behaviour change, such as eating less meat. Without a modest change to our diets, in line with the Government’s own healthy eating guidelines, increased action to reduce emissions will be needed elsewhere, making this a more expensive transition for the country.”

Clare Oxborrow, a senior sustainability analyst at Friends of the Earth, believes this is indicative of the Government’s approach to the issue, that agriculture can meet net zero targets without a reduction in livestock numbers or changing diets.

“There’s no hope of staying within safe climate limits without a significant reduction in the amount of meat and dairy eaten and produced globally,” she told Byline Times. “The longer the Government wastes time in fretting about a public backlash over making this a reality here in the UK, the harder it will become to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.”

With food businesses now seeing the demand for plant-based food become a long-term trend, Oxborrow is convinced that real progress could be made with a few clear commitments from the Government – such as making all meals served in the public sector sustainable and healthy, and by preventing new trade deals which do not adhere to the highest environmental and animal welfare standards.


Caterers Can Make a Difference

The Public Sector Catering Group (PSC100) is a network of caterers, dieticians, politicians, healthy eating campaigners and suppliers working together to “influence UK Government legislation and action towards helping people adopt healthier lifestyles through catering and education initiatives”.

It launched the ‘20% Less But Better Meat’ campaign around the same time as the CCC’s report was published – with the aim of encouraging public sector catering operators, such as schools, hospitals, the care sector, universities, colleges and the armed services, to reduce the amount of meat on their menus by one-fifth.

With meals prepared by the public catering sector being eaten by one in four of the UK population, PSC100 calculated that, if successful, the campaign could reduce the volume of meat served in the public sector by nine million kilograms – the equivalent of 45,000 cows – and would have the same environmental effect as removing more than 128,000 cars from the roads for a year.

“It would have been very nice for the Government to recognise the campaign and support it, though I don’t think anyone with public sector catering [experience] seriously expected it,” David Foad, campaign coordinator and editor of Public Sector Catering magazine,told Byline Times.

According to Foad, the commitment came from within the sector, driven by consumer demand and a recognition that caterers had an opportunity to support Government policy to curb carbon emissions.

Schools could see that a weekly meat-free day was relatively easy to implement and that children were keen to take on new environmental messages. Universities were also very much an “open door” with many already talking part in the campaign. Both the armed forces and the prison service are also working on menu changes.

But, despite the apparent success of the campaign, Foad believes that the Government is “missing a trick” by failing to support public sector caterers working to meet the demand for more environmentally-friendly plant-based options in line with CCC’s recommendations.

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Not All Farmers Object

Last April, MailOnline reported that British farmers were “furious” that public sector caterers were campaigning to reduce meat consumption, quoting Richard Findlay, the chairman of the National Farmers Union livestock board, calling the ‘20% Less But Better Meat’ campaign “wholly inaccurate” and “frankly ridiculous”.

Speaking to Byline Times a year-and-a-half later, David Hall, regional director for the NFU North West, appeared more optimistic. “The potential impact of the 20% reduction in red meat consumption could be seen as a threat to the farming community,” he said. “But the reality is that it could actually be an opportunity.”

He argues that carbon emissions from beef and lamb produce in the UK are half the global average, “so if we were looking for somewhere around the world to produce carbon-friendly beef and lamb, the UK would be the place” and that “we should be looking at the opportunity to increase production, rather than decrease even if consumption was to reduce by 20%”.

Byline Times asked BEIS and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) what they were doing to encourage and promote a 20% reduction in meat consumption in the UK in line with the recommendations from the CCC.

A BEIS spokesperson said that the UK was “leading the way in the fight against climate change” and that “we want to make it as easy as possible for people to shift towards a greener and more sustainable lifestyle, whilst maintaining people’s freedom of choice, including their diet”.

A DEFRA spokesperson said: “We are supporting our farmers to produce food in a sustainable way, whilst delivering environmental improvements. Well-managed livestock provide various environmental benefits, and meat and dairy can both be an important part of a balanced diet. We recognise the contribution to greenhouse gas emissions made by the livestock and dairy sectors, and there is work underway on things like feed additives that can help reduce emissions.”

The Government has promised to publish its own Net Zero Strategy ahead of the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow next month.

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