Whether it’s turning away from takeaway curries or saying no to a Sunday roast, people in the UK are now eating less meat than ever before. Thanks to the efforts of campaigns such as Meat Free Monday and a growing body of evidence about the harms posed to people and planet by our appetite for animal products, not to mention the cost of living crisis, it’s fantastic to see greater numbers finding their way to a cheaper, healthier, more environmentally friendly diet.
In the year to last March, the average Briton ate 854 g of meat a week – about the same as two sausages, three bacon rashers, three lamb chops and a chicken breast – compared with 976 g in the year to March 2021 and 949 g in 2019-2020. When records began in 1974, a year in which the country was still heavily reliant on coal, smoking was still widespread and the three-day week was in force, kitchen tables were groaning under the weight of more than a kilogram (1,023g) per person, on average.
Compared with that meat-heavy heyday, consumption of red meat – which has since been shown to raise the risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke – has dropped precipitously: beef and veal by 54 per cent, lamb and mutton by 81 per cent and offal by 90 per cent.
But although the country is moving in the right direction, there is still much further to go to mitigate the harmful effects being done to our planet by the meat and livestock industry.
The government’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) recommends a 35 per cent reduction in meat consumption by 2050, which means the country is still eating too much. Dr Mike Clark, a senior research associate in food at the Oxford Smith school, said meeting that target “requires a doubling in the rate of meat reduction compared with the rate from the last 10 years”.
The CCC said in a report to parliament in July that the government has “set out no plans to support the public to shift to a lower-carbon diet”, and recent attempts to urge ministers to curb the nation’s meat eating – a key plank of our legally binding commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – have been kicked down the road.
A well-received National Food Strategy, written by the government’s own food tsar, Henry Dimbleby, recommended the authorities reduce consumption of meat and ultra-processed food by 30 per cent over the next decade and increase out intake of fruit and vegetables by 30 per cent, arguing: “Our current appetite for meat is unsustainable.” The version that ended up being published was a disappointment that pledged only to develop and regulate “alternative proteins”. Dimbleby resigned in disgust. In June, the campaign group Feedback won the right for a judicial review of that decision, due any day now, arguing the government had a legal obligation to adopt the measures set out in the strategy to curb meat and dairy.