There has been widespread coverage of the EAT-Lancet report urging a drastic change in global food consumption. This was written by a distinguished scientific commission established by EAT, a global non-profit foundation, together with the Lancet. The key conclusions include: “Transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems is necessary to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement” and “intensive meat production is on an unstoppable trajectory comprising the single greatest contributor to climate change.”
I couldn’t agree more. Compassion in World Farming’s CEO, Philip Lymbery, moved beyond traditional animal welfare concerns to show the environmental effects of current food systems in his seminal book Dead Zone. In a nutshell, we are hooked on an intensive meat production system which is simultaneously environmentally unsustainable and bad for human health.
This is not about a global shift to veganism – indeed, the report envisages dietary changes which can mean more meat consumption in the poorest areas of the planet. But it would mean very significant changes to eat much less meat in the developed world. That in turn would make it easier to shift to high-quality meat from grass-fed animals, not dependent on intensive production with heavy antibiotic use and a reliance on inefficient use of grain. The report is not concerned with animal welfare, though welfare would certainly benefit as well.
But this is a scientific report. How is it going to move into the realm of practical politics? And what can Britain do to help? There are, I believe, three practical steps that need to happen:
1. The British Government needs to accept the direction of travel. It should be a public objective to eat less meat and better meat – better for the environment, human health and welfare alike.
2. Current indirect costs of intensive farming need to be reflected in actual costs, so that companies can make rational decisions based on real costs.
3. Britain should support the efforts by the EAT-Lancet commission to engage the United Nations, with a view to building a process for global action similar to the process to combat climate change.
How realistic is this? Environment Secretary Michael Gove has clearly recognised the need for change. Speaking to the NFU National Farming Conference, he said bluntly: “Change is inevitable, whether in or out of the EU. Population growth, technological innovation, environmental pressures and evolving social attitudes require us all to adapt.”
To change public attitudes, this needs to move to an explicit recognition that the future involves less meat consumption, and certainly a recognition of the hidden costs of the current system. At present, bizarrely, taxpayers are actually subsidising the intensive farming system. In response, farms are increasingly becoming more intensive. We should stop throwing £35million a year at making the situation worse.
How can we move towards an increasingly plant-based diet, as the report urges? Are we looking at meat taxes, as Caroline Lucas MP suggested at this year’s NFU conference? We might well be – so long as the revenue flows into reinforcing the extensive, sustainable farming sector, so that farmers have a solid financial benefit from moving to pasture-based production. But as a start we need to agree that there is a problem and stop helping to finance it.
Beyond our own borders, Britain should take a lead in the FAO, WHO and United Nations Assembly in pressing for global action. Like climate change, the issue is global and it needs to be tackled as such. Like climate change, the scientific consensus is clear, and it needs to lead to collective action.
The food system is the Titanic of the global economy. It is so huge and deeply embedded that change is difficult. But we are heading, hard and fast, for the iceberg and Britain should be taking a lead in championing a swift change in direction.