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‘Government should buy into plant-based tipping point’

A new report says procuring protein alternatives for hospital, school and prison canteens could set off a cascade of positive environmental changes

Posted : 3 February 2023

There have been many criticisms of the government of late, among them not fixing our national diet so we can eat our way out of an environmental hole and towards a greener, cleaner and more secure world.

A new report may help to focus its mind, with a simple solution that could trigger a cascade effect of positive environmental and social changes. Get all canteens and cafeterias funded from the public purse, from primary schools to primary care, from the Palace of Westminster to HM Prison Wandsworth, to buy plant-based protein instead of meat.The Breakthrough Effect: How to Trigger a Cascade of Tipping Points to Accelerate the Net Zero Transition, a report from SystemIQ and the University of Exeter, sets out a series of “tipping points” that can transform the planet for the better – the positive mirror image of those terrifying precipitative changes occurring in the natural world. But it goes further, positing three “super-leverage points” that could lead to a “tipping cascade” of positive effects: in food production, transport and agriculture.

“Redirecting public procurement to promote the uptake of alternative proteins” – that is, encouraging government departments, schools, hospitals, prisons to change the way they buy food to prefer plant-based protein over meat and dairy – would have far reaching effects beyond keeping pupils, patients, politicians and prisoners fed with delicious, nutritious plant-based grub.

Since public procurement accounts for 5-6 per cent of food sales in the UK and EU, getting schools and hospitals to swap meat for alternative proteins would increase demand massively, as well as drive down prices for everyone else. Not only would this curb emissions associated with meat and livestock (compared with meat, there are 90 per cent fewer harmful emissions associated with the production of alternative proteins), but it would free up land to be put to better use, from growing crops for humans to rewilding.

As the report says of these super-leverage points: “In the climate system, the presence of reinforcing feedbacks that create links between tipping points is a source of danger. In the global economy, these links are a source of opportunity: activation of a tipping cascade could greatly increase our chances of limiting global temperature increase … Crossing a tipping point in one sector accelerates progress towards tipping points in other sectors.”

The authors have reservations, however. While they have “high confidence” in the existence of the second super-leverage point, mandating zero-emission vehicles, and “moderate confidence” in the third, mandating the use of green ammoniate in fertiliser production, their belief in a greener food super-leverage point exists is “relatively low” – though they believe it is a “strong possibility”.

That’s because it’s not yet clear how the alternative protein industry would cope with the increased demand from public procurement, and it’s too early yet for any historical data on the interplay between meat eating, plant-based food and land use – would buying more veggie burgers necessarily lead to others buying fewer meat patties? Would the land freed up be guaranteed to put to positive environmental use?

In the face of climate catastrophe, such reservations shouldn’t stop us, though – even though the government has shown little interest in the past, even ignoring the recommendations of its own food tsar that the UK needs to cut meat eating by a third.

As the authors say: “The scale and pace of the economic transitions required to meet climate change goals are unprecedented in human history. The past will not provide a full guide to the future, and decisions will have to be taken in the face of uncertainty. [We] urge policymakers to take decisions on the balance of probabilities, and to act without delay.”

Read the report

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