Beef with meat

8th June 2017

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David Burrows wonders whether people will go meat-free to save the planet

The Paris Agreement on climate change is a big deal, but little has been made of the emissions gap between reduction commitments and requirements, or one of the most credible but unpalatable strategies to plug it.

‘Meat consumption has to be tackled,’ said Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London, at the Future Proteins summit in March, adding that culture was at the heart of the issue.

Policies to cut back on bacon are not universally popular, though – just ask Germany’s environment minister. In March, Barbara Hendricks took the symbolic step to demonstrate that her department practises what it preaches – vegetarian food is more climate-friendly than meat and fish – and banned schnitzel and salmon at official functions. Her government colleagues felt the diktat was too heavy-handed – The Guardian reported that only one other ministry would be following the lead – but there is increasing evidence to support a shift to diets low in meat consumption.

The meat on the bone

Food consumption is responsible for 20% of the UK’s greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, and livestock is the hotspot. Globally, the sector produces around 7.1 gigatonnes of GHG emissions each year, the same as tailpipe emissions from all the world’s vehicles. Global consumption of meat is forecast to increase 76% by the middle of the century. These trends are incompatible with the objective of avoiding dangerous climate change.

A report by the United Nations Environment Programme in November detailed an emissions gap between the collective carbon reduction commitments already made and those required to keep global warming levels below 2°C. GHG emissions should be no more than 42 gigatonnes by 2030, but on current projections these will be between 54 and 56 gigatonnes. That translates to a temperature rise of up to 3.4°C by 2100, and the consequences include catastrophic biodiversity loss, as well as growing numbers of climate refugees hit by poverty, illness, conflict and hunger.

‘Feeding ourselves without desecrating the planet is one of the biggest challenges we face,’ says Marta Zaraska, author of Meathooked: the history and science of our 2.5-million-year obsession with meat. ‘We are running out of land, water and time. To make matters worse, as the world warms, agriculture will get harder.’

But as one commentator neatly put it, the food sector is both victim and villain. ‘Even with best efforts to reduce the emissions footprint of livestock production, the sector will consume a growing share of the remaining carbon budget,’ says Laura Wellesley, a resource associate at UK-based think tank Chatham House. She suggests that worldwide adoption of a healthy diet is vital to keep global warming in check. ‘There remains a significant gap between the emissions reductions countries have proposed [in the Paris Agreement] and what is required for a decent chance of keeping temperature rises below 2°C,’ she noted in her report, Changing Climate, Changing Diets: pathways to lower meat consumption. ‘Governments need credible strategies to close the gap, and reducing meat consumption is an obvious one.’

Political process

That may be, but German minister Hendricks is not the only one to have proved it is a bitter political and cultural pill to swallow. According to a front-page story in The Times in 2010, Lord Stern, author of the groundbreaking report on the economics of climate change and chair of the Grantham Institute on Climate Change, had advised people to ‘give up meat to save the planet’. Since this was not what he said verbatim in the interview, Stern issued a clarification: ‘It’s a fact that the production of meat can be relatively carbon-intensive because of the energy used and to rear and feed the animals, and the methane emitted by livestock. I was not demanding people become vegetarians, but instead suggested that they should be aware that the more meat that they eat, the higher the emissions of greenhouse gases.’

The science supports his point yet some continue to ignore it. Reacting to Hendricks’ policy, Germany’s food minister, Christian Schmidt, said: ‘With us there won’t be a veggie day through the back door. Instead of paternalism and ideology I stand for variety and freedom of choice.’

Similar battles have been played out across Whitehall. The most notable perhaps occurred in 2009 when Andy Burnham, then health secretary, and Ed Miliband, climate change secretary, were promoting a paper in medical journal The Lancet. This showed how a 30% reduction in livestock production would be necessary to meet the UK’s GHG reduction targets in the Climate Change Act and help to reduce heart disease. Officials at Defra had not been told of the plans and forced Burnham to withdraw his endorsement – and even emphasise his meat-eating credentials.

Cutting back

That was eight years ago, and little has changed. In March last year, researchers at the University of Oxford published a study showing how a global switch to healthier diets that relied less on meat and more on fruit and vegetables could save up to eight million lives by 2050 and slash GHG emissions by two-thirds. ‘What we eat greatly influences our personal health and the global environment,’ says Dr Marco Springmann, who led the study. ‘We do not expect everybody to become vegan, but climate change impacts of the food system will be hard to tackle and be likely to require more than just technological changes. The scale of the task is enormous.’

But Sainsbury’s has taken up the baton. A few weeks ago, the supermarket chain revealed that it was working with Springmann and his team to help customers reduce meat consumption: in an in-store trial vegetarian options would be placed alongside meat and vouchers would be offered to shoppers who bought vegetarian products. The move was criticised by farmers’ union NFU. Charles Sercombe, chair of its livestock board, said: ‘The NFU has major concerns over the anti-meat agenda that Sainsbury’s is pursuing in its recent involvement with in-store trials attempting to change customer buying habits. The trials are based on analysis from Oxford academics on the impacts of eating meat on climate change and public health – analysis the NFU firmly contests.

‘Many farmers have worked with Sainsbury’s closely to reduce their carbon footprints. Livestock farmers are committed to playing their part in tackling climate change by carrying out activities as part of the farming industry’s GHG Action Plan [GHGAP]. They also manage the large reserves of carbon stored in the soil of UK grasslands.’

In March, Defra updated the GHGAP, which is a voluntary agreement to reduce on-farm emissions by three million tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year by 2022. Some farmers are making considerable progress, installing renewable energy, trialling new rations that help to limit methane emissions from their herds and minimising the use of fertilisers to help to cut nitrous oxide emissions (methane and nitrous oxide both have significant global warming potential).

However, not all farmers believe they need to act. Defra’s report revealed that just 48% of farmers think it is important to consider greenhouse gases when taking decisions about their land, crops or livestock, and only 57% are trying to reduce emissions. What is more, 64% are not acting to reduce emissions because they claim there is insufficient information or they feel there are too many conflicting views on the issue.

The mayhem created every time the meat issue is raised is not helping – but something has to give, not least because technological advances alone will not plug that emissions gap.

Feeding the world

The Paris Agreement states that part of the commitment to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change will be through ‘increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development in a manner that does not threaten food production.’

Feeding a global population set to reach 10 billion by 2050 will require some creative solutions – and unpalatable comprises, Zaraska explains in a report for New Scientist: ‘Perhaps we can learn to love algae, corn husks and crickets, but what about lab-grown meat, synthetic milk and genetic modification?’

Which brings us back to the Future Proteins summit. Speakers included Shami Radia, co-founder of Eat Grub, which produces a range of natural energy bars made from ground-up crickets, and Peter Verstrate, chief executive at MosaMeat, the firm born from a team of scientists that brought the world the first lab-grown burger in 2013. ‘We have a mild addiction to meat,’ Verstrate explains, ‘so if anything is going to replace it, it had better be just like it.’

His team spent £215,000 making the burger with stem cells taken from a cow and MosaMeat now has almost enough investment to start the next phase. ‘We’re still at the lab stage so we need to upscale it,’ he says.

So how long before we see it available on supermarket shelves? Ten years is the optimistic estimate: there are regulatory hurdles to jump and a new supply chain must be established, but within five years there could be lab burgers available on a small scale. They are unlikely to be cheap, however. And the biggest challenge could lie in convincing consumers.

Still, investors have spotted an opportunity in what are now called ‘clean meats’ (real meat grown without animal slaughter), as well as those generated using proteins from plants. The Impossible Burger is perhaps the most high-profile example of the latter. The plant burger that ‘bleeds’ is already available in the Bareburger chain in North America. That innovation took five years and a reported £64m from premise to plate, but investors are hungry for more. The capital- and time-intensity of the technology to bring low-impact meat to the table has dropped dramatically, says Niccolo Manzoni, an investor in food tech. ‘I’m excited about the shift in diets, functional ingredients, personalised nutrition and new sources of protein,’ he adds.

Changing appetites

There is an appetite for sustainable diets: 44% of people in Britain do not eat meat, have reduced their intake or are considering doing so, according to research commissioned by the Vegetarian Society last year.

How to market new products is a headache though. ‘The worst thing we can do is label “less meat” or “reduced meat”,’ says Claire Hughes, head of nutrition and science at M&S. ‘We don’t want these products to look [like] alternatives.’

Shoppers could also feel they are being hard done by: ‘less sugar’ is regarded as a good thing; ‘less meat’ might seem a cost-cutting con. But attitudes are changing. ‘Health messages do tend to hit home harder than environmental ones,’ says Nick Hughes, food sustainability adviser at WWF UK.

A study published in February by the Global Food Security (GFS) programme detailed where consumers stood on food and climate change. Although 24% of respondents to a survey said they would not change what they ate even if there were droughts, sea level rises and ocean acidification, two-thirds agreed that the food system was a major contributor to these and that diets ought to reflect this in order to reduce the impact of climate change. But there is a catch, the authors noted: ‘In order for the British public to make changes to their diet it is vital that it does not adversely impact their finances, health or enjoyment of food.’

As Lang says, this is a seriously big challenge. In his keynote speech at Protein Futures, he said everyone had become a little too wrapped up in ‘innovative wizardry’ and ‘trite’ arguments like ‘meat’s a problem, so let’s eat insects’. ‘We need to set new cultural values, so that the average person is not making a rational choice to protect the environment when eating, it’s the norm,’ he argued.

Indeed, the GFS poll discovered that almost half (46%) of people thought about the environmental sustainability of a product when they bought groceries, while one-third said the carbon footprint of a product was an important consideration. Research involving more than 5,000 consumers across Europe by Glasgow University Media Group came to a similar conclusion. Environmental issues in themselves will not necessarily trigger behavioural change, says lead researcher Dr Catherine Happer.

How about carbon labels to flag the hefty environmental footprint of some foods? The Carbon Trust launched the concept in 2007 with a little logo and ‘75 g CO2’ (later adjusted to 85 g) appearing on packets of Walkers’ crisps. Others jumped in, most notably Tesco with a promise to label all its 70,000 products. The interest was not purely altruistic – there were business benefits too. Walkers worked closely with its supplier towards a 7% reduction in emissions, achieved through improved energy efficiency (the label being amended accordingly to 80 g), saving about £400,000 each year in the process.

The Carbon Trust’s ultimate aspiration was that every product would have a carbon measure attached but, as The Economist noted in 2011, the earliest labels ‘indicated the promise of the idea but also highlighted the complexity of making it work’. A year later, Tesco had pulled the plug, citing expense and a frustration that competitors had not followed its lead to create much-needed critical mass.

The European Commission is running a series of pilots across several food and drink categories to try to develop a common EU methodology to assess and label products with an ecological footprint. It is a fine concept in theory, but in practice there are problems, says Simon Hann, a lifecycle assessment (LCA) specialist at consultancy Eunomia. He cites the example of beef products, which have will have a much larger footprint than chicken and could give them an unfair advantage, running contrary to competition regulations.

There’s another problem too, adds John Kazer, an LCA expert with the Carbon Trust: ‘If you say beef is high carbon and therefore “bad” you remove the incentive for the industry to change.’

Springmann’s team has calculated that a carbon tax on foods could slash GHG emissions by one billion tonnes and save half a million lives – beef would need to be 40% more expensive to account for the significant emissions during production, but consumption would fall 13%. Milk and lamb would increase by 21% and 15% respectively, with consumption dropping by 8% and 6%. There would also be subsidies to promote healthy food for low-income families but, as Springmann readily admits, food prices are a sensitive topic.

Wellesley’s research suggests that consumers are more receptive to the idea than politicians think. ‘Even unpopular interventions to make meat more expensive, for example through a carbon tax, would face diminishing resistance as [people] come to understand the rationale behind the intervention,’ she explains.

Diets are shifting but the changes are not happening fast enough or deep enough to plug the emissions gap. Politicians keen to keep their Paris promises – and food on the table – will therefore have to provide a push rather than a nudge, however unpalatable that may feel.

Clean meats and cloning

‘Would you eat foods generated in a laboratory rather than grown in a field?’ has been a popular polling question for some years. In 2005, research by the European Commission found that 54% of the public would never approve of growing meat from cell cultures if it were a way to avoid slaughtering animals; only cloning human beings so that couples with a genetic disease could become parents was less appealing (59%). More recent research in the US by Pew found that 78% of consumers would not eat lab-grown meat, which at the time made it less attractive than a brain implant to improve memory or mental capacity (26% were keen on the idea).

Polls should be taken with a pinch of salt, of course. ‘They ask the question without any context,’ the Good Food Institute’s Bruce Friedrich told October’s conference on cultured meat in Maastricht, the Netherlands. He said once consumers understood that clean meat was the same as conventional, 71% wanted to buy it; 25% said perhaps and only 4% said ‘probably not’.

Food for thought: climate change nightmares

A recent survey by farmers’ union NFU provided a reminder that agriculture is on the front line of climate change impacts: two-thirds of UK farmers have encountered an increase in extreme weather and 10% believe winters are becoming milder. Meanwhile, the most recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed that climate change is already cutting into global food supplies, with price spikes and social unrest in some regions of the world. The rate of crop yields is also beginning to slow, especially for wheat, which is sensitive to heat.

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