There's a report in today's Guardian newspaper, 16 August 2022, "England must reduce meat intake to avoid climate breakdown, says food tsar" with the byline, "Henry Dimbleby says move is politically toxic but only way to achieve sustainable land use and avoid ecological breakdown."
"Henry Dimbleby told the Guardian that although asking the public to eat less meat – supported by a mix of incentives and penalties – would be politically toxic, it was the only way to meet the country’s climate and biodiversity targets."
“It’s an incredibly inefficient use of land to grow crops, feed them to a ruminant or pig or chicken which then over its lifecycle converts them into a very small amount of protein for us to eat,” he said."
“It’s such a politicised area, it’s one that everyone globally avoids. You’ve got huge lobbies campaigning for consumption, and the public don’t like the idea of reducing meat and dairy,” said Henry Dimbleby.
That last comma is of interest. Were one to erase the comma the meaning of the sentence changes, "You’ve got huge lobbies campaigning for consumption and the public don’t like the idea of reducing meat and dairy." I wonder if that more accurately represents the position? In other words, the effect of "huge lobbies campaigning for consumption" promotes and reinforces the desire and therefore the demand for meat products. Conversely, perhaps this is where intervention is required. Intervention that is leadership.
"Globally, the food system is responsible for up to one-third of all greenhouse gases."
When considering whether the idea that meat consumption could be significantly influenced by lobbying one only has to look at the advertising industry. Does advertising work?
We live in an emergent digital age where data and empirical measurement is used widely in the service of commerce. It is data on which decisions are based. Given that advertising is ubiquitous, indeed it is the engine for growth of some of the world's largest companies (Google, Facebook, et al.), it is reasonable to conclude that advertising does work. It persuades people, through increasingly sophisticated methods, to consume.
"Agriculture alone produces 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions.
Note, dear reader, the pernicious and pervasive trickery afoot, the manner in which our people, my people, your people, are no longer called the people or citizens of a great country. They are called "consumers."
"Eighty per cent of processed food in the UK is unhealthy.
Of industrial lobbying we know not to underestimate advertising and promotion techniques which can slip into subversion. We have witnessed the tobacco lobby and the oil & gas industry where documented examples of influence campaigns, regulatory capture, and malfeasance date back to the 1950's. Caveat emptor, one might say. Consumers can choose, say the economists. Free will is at question, say the scientists and philosophers of our age. To its credit the full version of the National Food Strategy explains how the food industry knowingly exploits Homo sapiens innate desire for calorie dense food and the drive for profit which results in least cost food production and the nation's ill-health.
The problem of meat consumption is hard. Unlike tobacco meat eating is seen as no direct harm. The "it is natural" argument comes to mind, countered one must say by the equally natural, "So is anthrax, botulism, and bubonic plague."
The effect on human health of processed meats both in fast foods and ready meals is often played down yet in the UK almost 30% of adults are obese.
But does meat consumption have a negative effect on our planet like the oil and gas industry? Is it really comparable? What is its' effect on the environment? To what extent does it contribute to global warming?
The National Food Strategy sums up the problem succinctly.
"The global food system is the single biggest contributor to biodiversity loss, deforestation, drought, freshwater pollution and the collapse of aquatic wildlife. It is the second-biggest contributor to climate change, after the energy industry."
Which brings us to the UK's National Food Strategy was published in July 2021. H.M.Government have responded as of June 2022.
The scope and evidence based approach of the National Food Strategy is comprehensive. The response of HM Government less so. They don't seem to be acting upon the recommendations, a pointer to not taking the climate and biodiversity goals very seriously. Another case of contemporary politicians "kicking the can down the road."
There remains the moral problem. Citizens Consumers, encouraged to align their thinking with business, confuse what is legal with what is right.
"Tim Rycroft, a spokesman for the Food and Drink Federation, hinted at this dilemma in the recent BBC documentary "What are we Feeding our Kids?" Asked whether the priority of food companies should be profit or public health, he answered without hesitation: “Profit”. But, he added, “The industry has to be guided by the Government. If the Government says there is a reason why these [foods] are no longer acceptable, of course we will change.”
Government is equally culpable. It is the Government's task to shape attitudes and to align incentives for business with those of the people of the United Kingdom. It is the Government's job, as the executive mechanism of an elective democracy, to represent the interests of its citizens above that of business. The independent judgement illustrated by the National Food Strategy, though not perfect, needs to be taken up by political leadership and Her Majesty's Government alike.
The point about UK meat consumption is that it is but a small part of the overall problem of sustainability and climate change. Of land use in the UK. Of rational and logical long term strategy.
The consequence of inaction is catastrophe. More must be done, and done more quickly.
A Summary of the UK's National Food Strategy
(As laid out in full in the summary document, pdf.)
Recommendation 1. Introduce a sugar and salt reformulation tax. Use some of the revenue to help get fresh fruit and vegetables to low income families.
Recommendation 2. Introduce mandatory reporting for large food companies.
"The metrics should be reviewed every five years. The legislative basis for mandatory reporting should be a Good Food Bill, which we recommend should be introduced in the fourth session of this Parliament (2023/2024) (see Recommendation 14)."
Recommendation 3. Launch a new “Eat and Learn” initiative for schools.
Recommendation 4. Extend eligibility for free school meals.
"Extend eligibility to children who are undocumented or have No Recourse to Public Funds (NPRF). Enrol eligible children for free school meals automatically."
Recommendation 5. Fund the Holiday Activities and Food programme for the next three years.
"Holidays are a particularly hard time for families experiencing food insecurity. Three million children are estimated to be at risk of hunger during the school holidays every year, and data from food banks shows a surge in demand for emergency supplies over the summer. During the pandemic, the percentage of households experiencing food insecurity – as defined by the Government – increased from 7.6% to 9%."
Recommendation 6. Expand the Healthy Start scheme.
"Healthy Start is a scheme which provides coupons for vitamins as well as vouchers that can be used to buy £4.25 worth of fruit, vegetables and milk per week. The scheme is open to all pregnant women under 18yrs. It is also available to other pregnant women and families with children aged 3yrs or under, provided that they receive one of a number of qualifying benefits and have a low income."
Recommendation 7. Trial a “Community Eatwell” programme, supporting those on low incomes to improve their diets.
"Low consumption of fruit and vegetables is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. In 2019, diets low in fruit accounted for 10,066 premature deaths and approximately 210,000 disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) in the UK. Diets low in vegetables accounted for 5,935 premature deaths and just under 98,000 DALYs."
Did you know that potatoes cost six times more per calorie than the least healthy products such as "chocolate" and peperoni?
Recommendation 8. Guarantee the budget for agricultural payments until at least 2029 to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use.
"The Government should ring-fence £500m–700m for schemes to encourage natural carbon removal and habitat restoration. These schemes would incentivise farmers to convert their less productive land into nature-rich, carbon-sequestering landscapes."
Recommendation 9. Create a Rural Land Use Framework based on the Three Compartment Model.
"The Climate Change Committee has estimated that approximately 21% of agricultural land in England will need to change function – to forestry, energy crops, peatland or agro-forestry – in order to meet our net zero commitments."
There are some attractive maps of the UK with overlaid data. Unfortunately they are inadequately labelled for ease of comprehension. "High" or "low," "More" or "Less" what, I ask? Does Figure 3 suggest heavy forest to the south of London? I fear that examination at the "farm scale" is necessary for understanding.
"We can grow enough forest on our least productive agricultural land to reach our net zero goals." This would seem to be important but one is left asking, what part of our net zero goals does it refer to? All of them? So we can keep flying to foreign holidays and not changing our lifestyle at all?
Recommendation 10. Define minimum standards for trade, and a mechanism for protecting them.
And you thought such regulations were already in place. The lack of the 7P's (Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents a Piss Pretty Poor Performance) remains an outstanding characteristic of contemporary government.
"...serious harms overseas (for example, rules against deforestation of rainforests). The Government should set out a list of minimum standards which it expects imported food to meet in support of the objective of a healthy and sustainable food system."
One might reasonably fear that "serious harms" will be created through unintended consequence of subsequent legislation. This will have to be carefully monitored.
Recommendation 11. Invest £1 billion in innovation to create a better food system.
"This recommendation will deliver an estimated long-term net economic benefit to the UK of £3.5bn."
The recommendation goes to funding and structure. It is interesting to take a snippet from the supporting argument to understand the scale of possibility;
"Plant-based proteins produce 70 times less greenhouse gas emissions than an equivalent amount of beef, and use 150 times less land."
"Even without any further advances in alternative proteins, 11% of global proteins could come from non- animal sources by 2035. But innovation could double that.24 If we achieved that doubling in the UK, direct annual greenhouse gas emissions could fall by an additional 3MtCO2e / year, which is about 5% of total emissions from UK agriculture. Over 900,000 hectares – 5% of all the land used for farming in the UK – could be released for other uses, such as nature, carbon capture and extensification."
Is extensification defined in the OED?
Recommendation 12. Create a National Food System Data programme.
"The annual cost to Government to deliver this recommendation is £3.5m. Over three years the total is £10.5m."
Recommendation 13. Strengthen government procurement rules to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on healthy and sustainable food.
"The public sector is a colossal buyer of food. We estimate that it serves 1.9 billion meals a year – over 5% of the total UK food service turnover – at a cost of £2.4bn.4 This makes public procurement the Government’s most direct tool to shape the food system."
"Over the next three years, the new expenditure required for the Government to deliver this recommendation is approximately £3m. The annual cost to the Government of delivering an accreditation scheme for public sector food in schools, hospitals and prisons would be approximately £750,000 with an initial support and set up fee of approximately £750,000."
Recommendation 14. Set clear targets and bring in legislation for long-term change.
"The FSA needs sufficient resources to perform this additional role. We recommend it is allocated an additional budget of £5m per year for this, similar to the annual costs of the Climate Change Committee.8 Over three years the total is £15m."
"There is currently no consistent in-store labelling to show the environmental impact of food. Evidence about the impact of environmental labelling on consumer choices is mixed, but simple systems like traffic lights can help us to make informed choices about what we buy."
"Dietary guidance in the UK is based on evidence of the health effects of individual nutrients and foods rather than overall diet, and the different elements of this advice are not always consistent. Our current Eatwell guide, the closest we have to a reference diet, does not take sustainability into account."
Was the Eatwell guide influenced by the food lobby?
It is instructive to conclude on a report published by the Boston Consulting Group this month, "The Untapped Climate Opportunity in Alternative Proteins."
"..the production of meat and dairy alternatives resulted in three times more greenhouse gas reductions compared with investment in green cement technology, seven times more than green buildings and 11 times more than zero-emission cars." 'Plant-based meat by far the best climate investment, report finds,' Damian Carrington, 7 July 2022, The Guardian.
I note that in attempting to download the full document in Japan, the UK webserver has timed out multiple times. One wonders how this is possible given the support of government and surely of British government infrastructure?
I write as I listen to a radio report - yes, frequency modulated and shortwave radio are still "a thing" - of a six day closure of factories in Sichuan Province, China, owing to a "most severe and extreme moment in power supply" caused by the hottest weather in sixty years. Factories belonging to companies such as Apple supplier Foxcon, Intel, and Texas Instruments, will have to close.
Notes, Reference, and Bibliography
Frequently on this blog and elsewhere I aim to identify errors, influences, and hapless mistakes in publications such as the National Food Strategy. It deserves close reading and critical thought. In this instance nothing other than time constraints restrain me from doing so. While I have read the Summary document I have not read the whole of the complete document. A skim of a few chapters reveals some jarring notes and misplaced emphasis which a more detailed study would question (for example, the reliance on the food industry created trope about eating more fruit and vegetables.) My more perspicacious readers will no doubt notice a great deal more as they digest the report, pun intended. The National Food Strategy is a most welcome contribution to the discussion of the immediate and longer term future well-being of the United Kingdom. It should be discussed widely.
1. How can the UK reduce meat consumption and cut emissions? Pub.16 Aug 22. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/aug/16/how-can-the-uk-reduce-meat-consumption-and-cut-emissions-aoe
The National Food Strategy, published July 2021, https://www.nationalfoodstrategy.org/the-report/
UK Government Food Strategy, published13 June 2022,https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/government-food-strategy
England must reduce meat intake to avoid climate breakdown, says food tsar. 16 Aug 22. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/aug/16/england-must-reduce-meat-dairy-intake-says-henry-dimbleby
The Untapped Climate Opportunity in Alternative Proteins, Boston Consulting Group, pub 08 Aug 2022. https://www.bcg.com/ja-jp/publications/2022/combating-climate-crisis-with-alternative-protein
"Plant-based meat by far the best climate investment, report finds." Pub.7 Jul 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jul/07/plant-based-meat-by-far-the-best-climate-investment-report-finds
The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health https://eatforum.org/eat-lancet-commission/ Can we feed a future population of 10 billion people a healthy diet within planetary boundaries?
Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Pub 19 Jan 2019. https://www.thelancet.com/commissions/EAT
It seems that the word Anthropocene is becoming accepted. :-)