If you’ve changed your diet for the greener and are waiting for the rest of the country to catch up, then get ready. The second part of the UK’s National Food Strategy was published today and it offers some encouragement for those who want to see Britain eating less meat and more plant-based food.
Focusing on the environment, biodiversity, sustainability – and paying specific attention to how the meat industry is affecting those areas – the strategy highlights the need for a tectonic shift in the way we feed ourselves, not only to protect our health and the planet, but the food system itself.
“Our current appetite for meat is unsustainable,” the report says, observing that we get 68 per cent of our calories from crops, grown on just 15 per cent of farmland, while livestock account for just 32 per cent of our calories and take up 85 per cent of farmland: “We need some of that land back.”
It recommends the government reduces consumption of meat and ultra-processed food by 30 per cent over the next decade and increases our intake of fruit and vegetables by 30 per cent. And it wants nature put in the driving seat on a fifth of UK farmland, through planting trees and taking other steps to increase biodiversity.
As well as advising that the requirement schools serve meat three times a week be dropped from the School Food Standards, it recommends all public canteens get to enjoy one day a week dedicated to plant-based grub, saying: “If all public caterers moved to having even one meat-free day a week, this could reduce meat consumption by 9,000 tonnes a year, saving over 200,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.”
The strategy, written by Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of the Leon chain and son of the BBC presenter David, hammers home the importance of eating greener: “Our eating habits are destroying the environment, and this in turn threatens our food security. The next big shock to our food supply will almost certainly be caused by climate change, in the form of extreme weather events and catastrophic harvest failures.”
But the 30 per cent figure is still not enough to deal with the scale of the environmental problem created by the meat and livestock industry. The UK’s first citizens’ assembly has suggested a 40 per cent cut, the Eating Better Alliance, in its Better By Half roadmap, says it should be 50 per cent, while the Eat-Lancet Commission argues for 80 per cent.
A meat tax would be one surefire way to drive down demand, but the strategy shies away from recommending one. Instead, to address the imbalance in cost between healthy and unhealthy foods (the latter is three times cheaper than the former) it proposes a wholesale tax on the sugar and salt that food companies pour into highly processed food, to “nudge” people towards more nutritious choices.
Dimbleby was commissioned in 2019 by then environment secretary Michael Gove to take stock of the way Britain feeds itself, with a view to informing government policy. Part one of the report, published last year, took stock of the obesity crisis and its link to poverty. Meat Free Monday responded to a call for evidence from charities and other organisations involved with the way the UK feeds itself, and it’s great to see our suggestion that all schoolchildren be given the benefit of at least one day a week of plant-based meals was listened to.
For all the positives in the report, it’s not a done deal yet: as ever with reports and inquiries, it is up to the government what it chooses to implement. The environment secretary George Eustice has promised only to “carefully consider” the conclusions of the strategy and “respond with a white paper within six months, setting out our priorities for the food system”.