UK Meat Consumption Has Fallen 17% Over the Last Decade

Despite the drop, more action is needed to meet key national targets by 2030.

butcher arranges meat in shop window in UK

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The rallying cry of reducing red and processed meat consumption for both personal health and the environment appears to be having an impact in the UK. 

A new report from The Lancet Planetary Health has found that overall daily meat intake across the UK has decreased 17% (​​from 103.7 grams to 86.3 grams) over the last decade. (For reference, 1 gram equals 0.035 ounces.) The drop includes reductions in red meat (minus 13.7 grams) and processed meats (minus 7 grams), but notes an increase in white meats (plus 3.2 grams) such as pork and poultry. Those identifying as either vegetarian or vegan also jumped from 2% in 2008-2009 to 5% in 2018-2019.

“We estimated that the overall changes in meat intake equate to a 35% reduction in the amount of land and a 23% reduction in the amount of fresh water needed to rear livestock, as well as a 28% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture overall,” writes Cristina Stewart, health behaviors researcher at Oxford University. 

While a reduction of any kind gives hope that the UK is turning the corner in its fight against climate change, researchers are quick to dampen celebrations. In order to meet national targets of 30% less consumption of meat across the UK by 2030, the UK public will have to more than double its current rate of reduction over the next decade. 

“Understanding these trends within sub-groups of the UK population could help public health policymakers to tailor strategies, and help researchers and public health professionals to refine messaging to accelerate this reduction in meat consumption,” added Stewart. 

Understanding the Meat of the Problem 

A global change in diet habits is one of the best ways humanity can both improve overall longevity and mitigate the impacts of climate change. According to a 2021 study, meat production now accounts for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gas emissions from food production—twice the pollution of cultivation of plant-based foods. It also requires tremendously more resources, with one estimate associating beef production with 28 times more land, 11 times more water than poultry or pork.

“All of these things combined means that the emissions are very high,” Xiaoming Xu, a University of Illinois researcher and the lead author of the study, told the UK Guardian. “To produce more meat you need to feed the animals more, which then generates more emissions. You need more biomass to feed animals in order to get the same amount of calories. It isn’t very efficient.”

Of course, these changes won’t happen overnight, but there are some encouraging bright spots to build hope on. For one, alternative meats are gaining traction globally, with a record-setting $3.1 billion invested in the industry in 2020 alone. Having more options for traditional meat-eaters, especially those that provide the same satisfying taste and bite they’re used to, is key to reducing overall meat consumption. Globally, people—in particular, millennials—are more health-conscious than previous generations and more willing to embrace education on personal well-being. 

While the UK’s 2030 targets appear lofty in a time when meat still dominates the plates of most consumers, it’s not an unrealistic goal. "You don't have to be vegetarian," Stewart told the BBC. "Although, in general, meat-free dishes will have a lower impact. But if you're someone that eats meat every day, reducing your meat consumption by 30% just looks like having two meat-free days per week."

Other tips include making at least one meal during the day vegetarian, doubling the amount of vegetables and halving the meat on your plate, eating only plant-based snacks, and whenever possible buying locally-sourced meat products.

View Article Sources
  1. Stewart, Cristina, et al. "Trends in UK Meat Consumption: Analysis of Data From Years 1–11 (2008–09 to 2018–19) of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey Rolling Programme." The Lancet Planetary Health, vol. 5, no. 10, 2021, pp. e699-e708., doi:10.1016/s2542-5196(21)00228-x

  2. Xu, Xiaoming, et al. "Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Animal-Based Foods are Twice Those of Plant-Based Foods." Nature Food, vol. 2, no. 9, 2021, pp. 724-732., doi:10.1038/s43016-021-00358-x

  3. Eshel, G., et al. "Land, Irrigation Water, Greenhouse Gas, and Reactive Nitrogen Burdens of Meat, Eggs, and Dairy Production in the United States." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111, no. 33, 2014, pp. 11996-12001., doi:10.1073/pnas.1402183111