We are what we eat, as the saying goes. That may be an exaggeration but there’s no question food matters; to our health, to farmers and producers, and certainly, to the planet.
Covid-19 demonstrated the importance of a healthy diet, and the government responded with a raft of anti-obesity measures. Marcus Rashford’s brilliant campaign drew attention to food poverty in the UK, while the HGV driver crisis is a stark reminder of the fragility of our food supply. But for a long time, we have avoided that third, planetary point. It is high time we consider what a healthy, sustainable diet looks like.
With the UK aiming to reach net zero by 2050, the conversation has at last begun. Henry Dimbleby’s recent National Food Strategy was clear that agriculture is a major contributor to emissions, while a recent report from the Climate Change Committee recommended we reduce our consumption of high-carbon meat and dairy products by 20 per cent by 2030.
Participation in Veganuary has soared, with rising numbers of flexitarians and an end to any stigma associated with vegetarian and vegan food. Even the Hairy Bikers have gone meat-free!
While we await the government’s response to Dimbleby’s strategy, examine new trade deals and prepare for Cop26, we can expect increased public and political focus on how we transform our food system from being a carbon emitter to a carbon sink.
For the climate-conscious, the next step might be going plant-based. This shouldn’t be controversial – yet there is a risk that more sustainable diets will become the new front line in the “culture wars”, with livestock farmers pitted against climate activists, or new green farming policies seen as detrimental to British farming.
That’s because dietary change is a debate that divides along party and social lines. As research by strategic consultancy Lexington shows, nearly half of Conservative voters never swap out meat or fish – and they are disproportionately opposed to a meat tax. You are more likely to remain a meat eater if you backed Leave, are male or live outside London. Meanwhile, 59 per cent of Conservative voters don’t think plant-based products should use the language of meat, compared with just a third of Labour voters. A third of under-24s back a meat tax compared with just 15 per cent of pensioners.
There are clear reasons for this. Livestock farming is a key element of British agriculture. Farmers, many in Conservative-leaning regions, are naturally anxious over threats to their livelihood, with climate issues coming alongside fears over the impact of Brexit on exports, and new trade deals and farm payment schemes. Equally, the food we eat stirs strong emotions. For some, not eating meat is framed as a moral decision, meaning that it can be hard to have an objective conversation.
As Lexington’s research finds, for some on the left or the right there is value in making veganism a wedge issue, and stirring the proverbial (vegetable) pot. In the EU, farmers have been fighting back, with bitter battles over the labelling of coconut “yoghurt”, oat-based “milk” and vegetarian “burgers”. Will our newfound Brexit freedoms will see us reconsider those labels?
How can we avoid a similar “us versus them” attitude as the focus intensifies on sustainable agriculture? What does a “just transition” to net zero for farmers look like? The government will need rapidly to find answers to these questions if we are to achieve net zero by 2050.
Ultimately, this is not black and white. It’s natural that some in the farming sector will raise concerns about seeing their consumer base’s diets shifting, while others will want to advocate that we all go plant-based. But it shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. There is a big difference between encouraging less intensive livestock farming and expecting everyone to go plant-based.
Advocates of dietary change need to acknowledge sustainable meat production and support a hybrid diet approach. Plant-based producers need to do more to substantiate their claims once their full carbon footprint has been calculated. And we need public education as to what constitutes a healthy, sustainable diet, to incentivise behaviour change and empower consumers to make informed choices.
A polarised debate is not helpful, either in supporting the growth of sustainable farming or encouraging consumers to consider sustainability when making their dinner. We need a balanced conversation to make the changes required to protect people and the planet.
Mary Creagh is chair of Lexington’s Responsible Business practice. ‘Planting the future: A moment of change for UK food’ can be read in full here