Why we need to talk about meat

July 1st 2013

Sue Dibb

Sue Dibb

For too long, talking about meat consumption has been a delicate issue for politicians and the food and farming industry alike. But times are changing.  Just last month the MPs on the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee recognised that one important element to address global food security is for people in Britain to move towards eating meat less often and for meat to be produced in ways that have less impact on the environment.

And today (1 July) sees the launch of Eating Better – for a fair, green, healthy future – a new alliance to demonstrate that eating ‘less and better’ meat is fairer, greener and healthier for people and the planet.

Supported by 25 national organisations, including WWF-UK, and celebrity chef and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Eating Better is calling for action by governments and the food industry to help people adopt diets that are better for us and the planet.  That means eating a greater variety of plant-based foods and in high meat consuming countries like the UK, eating less meat – whether red, white or processed.

Eating Better also want greater support for farming that produces meat in ways that benefit the environment, health and animal welfare.  This ‘less and better’ approach to meat eating, which WWF-UK and the Food Ethics Council defined in their Prime Cuts: valuing the meat we eat report earlier this year, can support farmers without being more expensive for consumers.

There is growing expert consensus that a shift to more plant-based diets and eating less meat can help have win-wins for health, slash greenhouse gas emissions, protect biodiversity and help feed the world more fairly.

And with over one-third of the global grain harvest and 97% of soymeal used for animal feed rather than feeding humans directly, meat and livestock is at the heart of the food security debate about how best to meet the world’s food needs.

As Bill Gates writes in the Future of Food: ‘Raising meat takes a great deal of land and water and has a substantial environmental impact. Put simply, there’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people.’

Also, growing demand for grain for animal feed leads to competition for land and increases the price of staple foods.  As grain prices continue to rise and people all over the world are struggling to feed themselves, it is right to ask whether we should be feeding so much grain to livestock instead of people.

At the same time many people in developing countries – particularly children – could benefit from more of the protein and micronutrients that meat and milk can provide in their diets. As the world’s population continues to grow, it’s vital that global consumption, including meat consumption, is re-balanced more equitably.

Feeding a growing and more affluent global population healthily, fairly and sustainably simply isn’t possible unless we make significant changes. We know there are no magic bullets.  Reducing food waste and producing food with less impact on the environment are both essential but not sufficient.  Modifying our consumption patterns must be a priority too – yet politicians and food producers have often been reluctant to face up to the impacts of our consumption.

Part of the problem is lack of awareness.  Most people are familiar with advice to eat healthily and many are concerned for animal welfare, supporting fair trade, reducing food waste and seeking out more local, seasonal produce. Yet far fewer are aware of impacts of meat-rich diets for health, climate change, the environment and for feeding the world fairly.

That’s where Eating Better plans to make a difference, by raising awareness and encouraging a culture where we place greater value on the food we eat, the animals that provide it and the people who produce it.  The horsemeat scandal highlighted where pressures for ever-cheaper meat can lead.  As a result a growing number of consumers are becoming more discerning about the meat they eat.

A message to eat ‘better’ may seem counterintuitive when many household food budgets are squeezed by rising food prices and the economic downturn.   Yet options such as eating more meat-free meals, eating meat in smaller portion sizes, using small quantities of meat to add flavour or reserving meat for special occasions can all save money.  And ensuring that the meat you do eat is ‘better’ ie naturally-fed, with a known provenance and is produced to high animal welfare, environmental and quality standards, need not be more expensive.

Eating Better is not anti-meat or anti-farmer.  Indeed raising livestock can be an efficient way to use poor quality farmland that could not otherwise grow crops and to provide livelihoods.  Keeping livestock on semi-natural habitats such as plant and wildlife-rich meadows and pastures is an important conservation tool and helps maintains valued landscapes.  Permanent pasture for grazing can act as a carbon sink.

As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says in his message of support to Eating Better:

As the world’s insatiable demand for cheap meat continues to ramp up, their message of reducing our overall meat consumption and committing to the highest welfare and environmental standards in the meat we do chose, is a no brainer. It’s right for our health, right for the planet and only fair to the millions of farm animals we raise for food.

To find out more about Eating Better: for a fair, green, healthy future and how to get involved visit our website: www.eating-better.org and follow us on twitter @Eating_Better.

Sue Dibb

Coordinator – Eating Better: for a fair, green, healthy future 

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