One of the biggest disappointments among many in the government’s new National Food Strategy is the lack of action to curb meat and dairy consumption, one of several specific recommendations that were ignored.
The restaurateur Henry Dimbley, who wrote three comprehensive and well-received advisory reports last year, had advised reining in Britain’s growing appetite for animal products. Consumption should be cut by 30 per cent to protect the environment and improve the health of the nation, he wrote in his second report last July, noting that 85 per cent of the UK’s agricultural land was being used to rear livestock or grow feed, rather than crops for humans. “Our current appetite for meat is unsustainable,” he wrote. “We need some of that land back.”
Rather than targeting the problems of livestock emissions and land and water use, however, the strategy, published last week, pledges only to develop and regulate “alternative proteins”, such as algae, insects and lab-grown meat, and promote venison. The IPCC concluded this year that curbing meat and dairy could lead to a slew of positive effects, including “substantial decreases” in harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
Underlining the extent to which the government appears to be rowing back from its commitments both to the climate and the health of the population, the environment secretary George Eustice said this week of the shift to plant-based food: “It’s happening anyway, it’s a consumer trend. Supermarkets in the last five to ten years have given over more and more spaces to plant based foods, meat alternatives … I just don’t see it [as] the role of governments to lecture.”
Dimbleby was emphatic in his criticism. “They have said we need alternative proteins but they have not mentioned the unavoidable truth that meat consumption in this country is not compatible with a farming system that protects agriculture and sequesters carbon,” he said. Efforts to halt and reverse climate change will fail unless we change the way we eat and farm.
His other recommendations included expanding free school meals in England to benefit as many as 1.5 million children, imposing a sugar and salt tax to fund healthy foods and tackle the obesity crisis, and improving environmental and animal welfare standards in farming. On obesity, the prime minister Boris Johnson said: “The best way to lose weight, believe me, is to eat less.” But studies have shown eating more plant-based food is better.
One quick win for schools, the national diet and the climate would have been to change outdated food standards that stipulate canteens must serve a portion of meat three days a week, and dairy every day, setting a pattern for life. MFM’s founders Paul, Mary and Stella McCartney said: “No one needs to eat meat, so it shouldn’t be mandatory to serve it in schools. It’s time to revise the school food standards to help the planet, spare the animals and promote healthy eating.”
Among widespread dismay at the strategy’s lack of ambition, Labour’s shadow environment and food secretary, said: “This is nothing more than a statement of vague intentions, not a concrete proposal to tackle the major issues facing our country. To call it a food strategy is preposterous.”
Read the strategy (such as it is)