Meat and sustainable diets: why we recommend ‘less and better’
As more and more people are waking up to the benefits to their health and the planet of eating more plants and less meat and dairy, we’re sometimes asked about Eating Better’s message of eating ‘less and better’. How much less is good? What do we mean by better meat? Isn’t veganism and cutting out all animal products the best solution? Wouldn’t it be easier just to ask people to cut out beef and lamb and choose chicken? Conversely, shouldn’t we be encouraging people to choose pasture-fed beef and lamb over intensively produced chicken? In this article, we explain our messaging and answer these common questions.
Eating Better’s alliance organisations come from a diverse range of backgrounds – environmental groups, animal welfare charities, those concerned with health and nutrition, and with feeding the world ethically and fairly. What unites us is the recognition that what we eat and how it is produced is critical to tackling major global challenges including climate change and food security. We share an understanding that livestock production is by far the most significant factor, and that reducing our meat consumption (among high consuming countries and individuals) will have co-benefits beyond the environment; hence our name: Eating Better: for a fair, green healthy future.
Before the Eating Better alliance was launched, we spent a year engaging with a wide range of organisations, understanding the evidence, and working with a communications specialist to help us find common ground and a shared voice. We developed our core message – to eat less meat (of all types) and to choose better meat for the meat you do eat – as a way to talk about meat consumption that had the potential to engage the majority of people, and not just the few. We also sought to encourage a culture where we place greater value on the food we eat, the animals that provide it and the people who produce it.
To encourage this shift we needed to open up new ways of talking about meat – to create a new, positive dialogue and message, for people, policy makers and food companies - beyond the polarised ‘meat is bad/good’ line of argument.
Our evidence shows this messaging is getting through and resonating. In our latest YouGov survey 44% of people describe themselves as either willing to or already committed to cutting down or cutting out meat. Indeed, there’s a whole new language: flexitarians, reducetarians, part-time carnivores, to describe meat-reducers who are now seen by food companies as an important and growing customer base.
How much is less?
Our goal is for more people to eat more food that is better for them and the planet, more often, so we encourage any reduction that people feel able to make.
For many, the first step is going meat-free for a day or meal occasion – such as our #meatfreelunch campaign. Initiatives such as World Meat Free Day demonstrate that even small individual changes, when added together, can have a huge impact. As people incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets they are likely to discover new ways of eating, where choosing dishes with less or no meat starts to feel normal. With UK meat consumption twice the global average, evidence points towards a longer term goal of halving of meat consumption as a fairer share than currently of global resources.
What kinds of meat should we be cutting back on?
Eating Better advocates a reduction in all types of meat – red (beef, lamb, pork), white (poultry) and processed meats of all types. From a climate change perspective all meat has a high impact, and thus shifts to plant-based foods offer the best sustainability improvements. Meat from ruminants (beef and lamb) does have a higher direct impact than that of non-ruminant meat (pork and chicken). However, we currently eat a lot more pork and poultry than beef or lamb, and consumption of chicken in particular has been growing over recent decades. At the current volume, pig and poultry production has serious environmental impacts, as it is reliant on crops not pasture, and protein-rich feeds typically use imported soy. The expanding need for animal feed is a major cause of deforestation and other land use changes globally, which is one of the key drivers of climate change and loss of biodiversity around the world, with dire impacts for local communities.
From a health perspective, we’re advised to limit our intakes of red and particularly processed meat because of their links to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and colorectal cancer. While poultry meat has a relatively clean bill of health, its consumption is not without concerns. A typical supermarket chicken today contains 2.7 times as much fat and 30% less protein than it would have done in 1970. Also the routine use of antibiotics in poultry and pig production is a major concern for the role it plays in driving human antibiotic resistance.
And importantly, meat from poultry and pigs is associated with some of the greatest animal welfare and pollution concerns, as these animals are most likely to be intensively farmed and are produced in the greatest numbers.
Given this complex picture, Eating Better advises moderation in all meat consumption – not just red or ruminant meat, and we don’t advocate a switch from red to white meat. Rather, we advocate a shift to a culture of eating less meat and more plants, as an approach that would bring far-reaching benefits and be ultimately more sustainable.
What do we mean by better meat?
An important part of our message is about choosing better meat for the meat we do eat. For us that means avoiding intensively produced meat – and ensuring that the meat we eat is from animals that are naturally-fed, has a known provenance and is produced to high animal welfare, environmental and quality standards (see our Q&A What do we mean by better meat here). Often this means looking for meat with an organic, pasture fed or free-range standards label. Pasture based grazing systems can play a role in mitigating climate impacts by sequestering some carbon in the soil, but the extent to which this occurs needs to be better understood. Crucially we believe that a less and better approach to meat eating can help support more sustainable farming, without being more expensive for consumers.
But choosing better meat and dairy doesn’t mean we can continue to eat lots of it. For example, there simply would not be enough land to supply current levels of consumption, if production shifted from grain-fed to pasture fed livestock. And as the global population increases, we cannot continue the inefficiency of feeding grain to animals instead of to people. Researchers have calculated that halving grain-fed production could feed 2bn people globally.
What about dairy?
Eating Better started out talking mainly about meat but now include dairy (particularly cheese) within our less and better messaging – both for health and sustainability. As dairy production has become more intensive, there are welfare concerns from breeding cows for high yield and the trend points towards more mega-farms, zero-grazing systems and increased antibiotic use. A shift away from meat consumption should therefore not result in increased dairy consumption. Hard cheese, in particular, has relatively high associated carbon emissions: 8-10 times that of milk, and higher (per kg) than pork.
Where does veganism and vegetarianism fit in?
Eating Better recognises that there is a broad spectrum of eating patterns that can be more sustainable. For some people that means avoiding all animal based food and products (veganism) or some (vegetarianism). We say it’s great if people choose to do this as vegan and meat-free eating patterns are typically among the least impactful for the environment. Veganism is becoming more popular but we also know that it’s less likely that the majority of people will make this change, as it is many steps from current diets. Neither do we want to decry all livestock farming and the livelihoods it supports. Part-time veganism and vegetarianism may not suit the purists, but in our books it is a great step towards healthier and more sustainable eating. And, in order to achieve the greater changes necessary beyond 2030 to ensure climate change is kept within safe limits, we need to start engaging people now by making simple changes easy and acceptable.
We recognise that complex issues lie behind our less and better meat approach. Eating Better is calling for more research and support for practical initiatives to shift our food production and consumption onto more sustainable and healthful pathways and for the full engagement of policy makers, researchers and food producers in this task. But the overall direction of travel and imperative for change is clear: healthy sustainable diets are those that are predominantly plant-based with moderate amounts of livestock products.
Chicken photo by Mickaela Scarpedis-Casper on Unsplash