Conflicting stances on meat and its impact means it’s difficult to know how much to reduce or whether to reduce at all, a debate has suggested.
Livestock farmers, policymakers, campaigners and vegans came together to debate the issue of meat and its role in a sustainable future at an event hosted last week by the campaign group Sustain.
While there was broad consensus that intensive livestock farming should end due to animal welfare concerns and the environmental footprint of animal feed, the wider debate on reducing meat highlighted confusion on the specifics.
“Individuals are still grappling with why they should eat less meat. It’s not as clear as ‘recycle your plastic’,” said journalist David Burrows.
“We looked at some of the coverage and it shows how hard it is to get these messages across about eating less meat and the climate: ‘farmers must reduce meat and dairy by a third by 2032’ compared to ‘British meat is really sustainable and lower emissions than the global average’, and ‘nature-friendly meat’,” he added.
“It shows how this very simple message has ended up tying us in knots,” added Burrows.
Author of How to Love Animals and FT journalist, Henry Mance, argued that there should be less room for debate: “Scientists are categorically saying we need to reduce our meat and dairy consumption. There’s a place for nuance but there’s a place for getting the message out there.”
“Meat consumption globally is rising,” added Mance.
Mance also questioned regenerative farming’s claim that animals can help sequester carbon in the soil: “There’s not been a single study to say that we can have carbon-neutral beef.
“It’s very reminiscent of the debate around gas and the proposed carbon capture in gas. It never scaled up. But in effect, it slowed down the transition to renewables,” added Mance, who said the message around regenerative farming is confusing and we need to focus more simply on ‘less’, rather than ‘better’, meat.
On the other side of the debate, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, Patrick Holden highlighted how animals can fertilise soils without the need for synthetic fertiliser, made from fossil fuels. “Without cows, without sheep; we cannot switch to a regenerative food system without their poo,” said Holden.
Director of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association (PFLA), Fidelity Weston, echoed his views, adding: “Meat is produced in so many ways; we all agree that meat that is bad for the climate and biodiversity should be stopped. But we do not want to stop producing all the meat that makes amazing vegetables because it’s putting poo back into the soil. We need the public to understand that.”
Professor Tim Benton, research director at thinktank Chatham House, added: “It’s not that meat is bad, it’s the way that it’s scaled.”
Is it down to the individual?
There was also a clear disagreement about how a change in meat consumption should happen. Mance emphasised the knock-on effect that individuals could have when reducing their personal meat consumption, whereas campaigners championed collective action.
“As an individual, you can have a massive impact; you can reduce your emissions by 30 per cent [in switching to a plant-based diet],” said Mance, adding that this can send a signal to the markets and governments about reducing meat.
Campaigners, however, took issue with this focus on individual choice.
“It’s comforting to feel that individual actions make a difference, but our power to influence change shouldn’t come with a price tag,” said local action officer for Sustain, Bella Driessen.
“It feels like no coincidence that this line of reasoning is pushed by people who overwhelmingly hold the power of choice, at a time when many people cannot choose.”
“To see transformative change, we need everyone’s voice at the table – not just a few people’s hands in their pockets,” Driessen said.