UK's National Food Strategy Asks Britons to Eat Less Meat

It would boost health, slow climate change, and put resources to better use.

woman with bowl of vegan pasta
A woman serves a bowl of vegan pasta.

Getty Images/Westend61

The United Kingdom just released part two of its National Food Strategy, a long-awaited report that strives to create a food system that is better for both people and the planet. What stands out, in particular, is the report's call for a 30% reduction in meat consumption over the next decade—a recommendation that the Humane Society International/U.K. describes as "bold, visionary, and urgent."

The 176-page report is divided into four sections that address food within the context of nature and climate, health, inequality, and trade, but the first two sections overshadow most of it. The section on meat production, which is of particular interest to Treehugger readers, takes a clear stance with its initial statement: "Reducing our consumption of red and processed meats would be good for both us and the planet."

It goes on to describe the negative impact meat production and consumption has on human and planetary health. Livestock emits significant amounts of greenhouse gases, with beef being 25 times more carbon intensive than tofu per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of protein. It acknowledges that different animal proteins have footprints of varying sizes, but that these are all consistently much higher than plant-based proteins. 

"It’s what we farm, more than how we farm, that causes the environmental impact of our diet," the report states. And we should be questioning what we are farming because livestock, despite occupying 85% of U.K. agricultural land, provides less than a third (32%) of its calories.

As demand for (cheap) meat grows, so does the number of intensive farming operations that are linked to antibiotic overuse and resistance, contamination of nearby waterways, and animal cruelty. The report says that the number of intensive farms in the U.K. has increased 25% since 2011. 

One interesting point is that half the meat consumed by Britons is found in prepared meals. Fewer people are buying "carcass meat", which means there are excellent opportunities to experiment with product reformulation, presumably with plant-based alternatives that the report describes as having "technical potential." As any vegan, vegetarian, or reducetarian knows, it is not difficult to replace ground meat with a soy- or lentil-based substitute while maintaining the original taste and texture.

Claire Bass, executive director of HSI/U.K., said in a press release, "It is imperative that the UK government listen and act decisively to wean the nation off the vast quantities of cheap meat that are wrecking our health, the environment, and causing immense suffering to billions of animals." Her organization is part of an initiative called Forward Food that's working to retrain institutional cooks in plant-based techniques, and is pressuring the government to take the lead in creating "a healthy, fair and sustainable food system" as host of November's UN climate change conference.

The Vegan Society has similar praise for the report, calling it "a long overdue overarching approach, bringing urgently needed direction and coherence to food policy in the UK," and believe it reflects the public's attitude. CEO of the Vegan Society, Louise Davies, said,

"Targets for meat and dairy reduction are essential for meeting our climate targets. We can be ambitious—the plant-based movement is rapidly growing: people want to eat meat alternatives for ethical, health, and environment reasons, and they need government intervention to make this the most affordable and accessible option. It’s no longer acceptable for the government to ignore what we eat when it comes to the climate crisis."

Even environmental journalist George Monbiot sounds positive for once! Insert tweet:

This report stands out during a month when Spain's minister of the environment, Alberto Garzón, was attacked for asking citizens to do the exact same thing that this National Food Strategy report does—to cut down on meat consumption. He released a video asking Spaniards to get their 2.2 pound+ (1 kilogram+) weekly consumption rate down to 7 to 17.7 ounces (200 to 500 grams) of meat that is the weekly recommended amount by the Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition. Despite his video stating many of the exact same things shown in the U.K. report, it was met with pushback and even derision.

The U.K. report will likely be more warmly welcomed Garzón's message, as veganism is growing rapidly in that country and was declared in 2017 by The BBC as being "cemented in our society."