Q & A
Most people know why a healthy diet is important, but far fewer are aware of the other sustainability impacts of our food consumption.
The issue of food waste is rising up the agenda, and Eating Better supports the campaigns to cut the amount of food that is wasted by food companies and in our homes.
However, meat is also a particularly ‘hotspot’ and by comparison, this issue has had far less attention. Eating Better will raise awareness of how simple changes, such as reducing meat consumption in high consuming countries like the UK, can have positive benefits for public health, the climate, the environment and animal welfare, while also reducing competition for land and upward pressure on food prices.
See Learn more for more information about why eating less meat is fairer, greener and healthier.
“There is broad agreement… that consumers in developed countries should reduce their consumption of meat and dairy products and proportionately increase their consumption of vegetables and fruit products based on environmental and/or health considerations”
“It has been argued that a reduction in the amount of meat consumed in high- and middle-income countries would have multiple benefits: a reduced demand for grain, leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions, and a positive effect on health….. Policy-makers should recognise that more proactive measures affecting the demand and production of meat may be required should current trends in global consumption continue to rise.”
“A substantial contraction in meat consumption in high-income countries should benefit health, mainly by reducing the risk of ischaemic heart disease (especially related to saturated fat in domesticated animal products), obesity, colorectal cancer, and, perhaps, some other cancers.”
“Raising meat takes a great deal of land and water and has a substantial environmental impact. Put simply, there’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people.”
Globally, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that livestock contributes 14.5% to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is through direct emissions from the production process, and indirectly as a driver of land-use change.
Direct emissions come in the form of
- methane (CH4) released by livestock in their manure, and particularly by ruminating cattle and sheep that exhale methane during the digestive process.
- nitrous oxide (N2O) from nitrogenous fertilizer, other inputs applied to feed crops or grazing land and the breakdown of animal waste, and
- carbon dioxide (CO2) from the use of fossil fuels.
Indirect GHG emissions are primarily the result of livestock production and animal feed cultivation driving land-use change. This occurs when land is converted from natural grassland or forest to agricultural use. The huge scale of land-use change in South America has been driven by cattle grazing and demand for soy crops. Soy is a common ingredient in concentrated animal feeds because of its high protein content. It is used particularly in pig and poultry production, as well as for dairy cattle.
Quantifying the impact of livestock on land-use change is very difficult and is often not included in estimates of livestock climate change impact. Given the significance of deforestation as a cause of climate change and of agriculture as a driver of deforestation, WWF and the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) estimate that land-use change accounts for as much as 40% of the emissions driven by UK food consumption.
The contribution of livestock to climate change as a result of land-use change is also complicated by the positive role that permanent pasture for grazing plays in storing carbon in the soil. The extent of the beneficial effect provided by ruminant livestock grazing is debated - but sheep and cattle, grazed at the right stocking densities could be better for net GHG emissions than intensively produced pigs and poultry dependent on imported soy feeds.
To meet the target of reducing GHG emissions by 80% by 2050, the UK government’s Committee on Climate Change proposes changes in consumption towards foods that are less emissions‐intensive and suggests that a reduction in meat and dairy consumption would reduce our emissions far more effectively than with technological fixes.
Eating Better wants to encourage a culture where we value the food we eat, the animals that provide it and the people who produce it.
Along with eating less meat, one way we can do this is through avoiding intensively produced meat and ensuring that the meat we do eat is:
- better for animal welfare: by choosing meat produced to higher animal welfare standards such as free range, Freedom Foods and organic.
- better for biodiversity and the environment in the UK and overseas: by choosing naturally grazed, pasture-fed meat from more extensive and mixed or upland farming systems that do not use imported soy feed. Meat from rare and locally adapted breeds can also be better for biodiversity.
- better for reducing waste: by valuing meat, making the most of each carcass through ‘nose to tail’ eating and reducing the amount of edible food that ends up in pet food, incinerated or in household waste. More food waste could also be used for animal feed for pigs and poultry - see The Pig Idea.
- better for health: reducing the amount of fat and salt by choosing leaner cuts of meat, and unprocessed meat products.
- better for producers: by choosing meat from smaller scale, higher-value production systems that provide better profits for producers.
- better for reconnecting producers and consumers: by choosing meat with a known provenance – whether local, regional or national, such as through farm shops, farmers markets and independent butchers.
The 2013 WWF/Food Ethics Council report: Prime Cuts: Valuing the Meat We Eat illustrates ways of defining and valuing ‘better’ meat consumption.
Red meat is generally considered to be beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton and goat. White meat is meat from poultry – including chicken, turkey and duck.
Processed meat has been cured or treated to extend its shelf life and includes ham, bacon, pastrami, salami, sausages and processed deli or luncheon meats. These are often high in salt and contain preservatives and other additives.
From a climate change perspective, all meat has a high impact. The production of ruminant meat (beef and lamb) has a higher direct impact that that of non-ruminant meat (pork and chicken). However, pork and poultry production are reliant on protein-rich feeds provided by imported soy, which has high indirect emissions as a result of land use change in South America.
From a health perspective, we’re advised to limit our intakes of red and processed meat because of their links with risks to health including 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 in respect of human antibiotic resistance.
Finally, meat from poultry and pigs is associated with the greatest animal welfare and pollution concerns, as these animals are most likely to be intensively farmed.
Given this complex picture, Eating Better advises moderation in all meat consumption – not just red meat.
 Wang et al, Modern organic and broiler chickens sold for human consumption provide more energy from fat than protein, Pub Health Nutri, 2010, 13: 400.
In the UK each person eats on average, just over 50kg of meat a year. This is approximately twice the world average.
In line with healthy eating advice, and the need to reduce environmental impacts Eating Better recommends a shift to more plant based diets. Experts have recommended that would mean roughly halving our meat consumption. Government health advice recommends no more than 70g of red meat a day. This is the equivalent of two medium portions of roast beef and two small steaks a week. Currently 6 out of 10 men and 1 out of 4 women exceed this amount. The World Cancer Research Fund also recommends a mainly plant-based diet, reducing red meat and avoiding processed meats.
People sometimes worry about getting enough protein. In fact in countries like the UK we eat much more protein than we need for good health.
However not all meat has the same health impacts and the way animals are produced can affect the nutritional quality of the meat. For example, pasture-reared beef has been found to contain less fat and has a higher proportion of omega-3 fatty acids than intensively reared beef.
WWF’s Livewell report recommends that the average diet contains no more than 12 per cent meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy protein and 15 per cent dairy products to meet the Government’s Climate Change targets (set out in the Climate Change Act 2008). And research for Friends of the Earth and Compassion in World Farming showed that a move to lower meat diets (20-30% animal protein – including meat, dairy and fish) in the West would help protect natural resources and enable us to move away from factory farms and damaging intensive crop production.
At this point Eating Better is not focussing on dairy products as unlike meat, in the UK we do not over-consume dairy relative to healthy eating guidelines. However, there are still animal welfare and environmental implications of intensive dairy production, so we support better dairy systems (see What do we mean by better meat). This includes organic systems and those with dual use animal breeds (meat and milk) which may be higher welfare, better for the environment and provide higher returns for producers.
The welfare concerns in respect of dairy farming relate particularly to breeding for high yield and a trend towards mega-farms and zero-grazing. These systems restrict a cow’s ability to express her natural behaviours, such as grazing. Being ruminants, cows easily digest grasses and hay. In order to maximise milk yield, many cows are now reliant on a diet of cereals and soy. These are not her natural foods and can have adverse health impacts, such as increasing the cow’s likelihood of lameness. Because of breeding and feeding practices, a typical high-yielding dairy cow now produces around 10 times as much milk as her calf (which is removed soon after birth) would have drunk.
As with meat, we would recommend buying milk and dairy products from higher welfare systems. There are also a range of substitutes for milk made from soya, almonds, oats, hemp etc.
We also recommend that a shift away from meat consumption should not result in increased dairy consumption, so go easy on the cheese!
 Webster J, “Understanding the Dairy Cow”. Blackwell Science 1993.
Eating Better is not anti-meat or anti-farmer. Profitability for livestock farmers is already challenging, and is compounded by rising feed costs. Moving to ‘better’ livestock farming that’s less intensive and less reliant on imported feed, and which favours home-grown feeds and diverse breeds, could help make farmers more resilient to price fluctuations in commodity markets. Friends of the Earth and others have been looking at ways for the industry to reduce its impact, from feed use in particular, through looking at home grown alternatives.
The ability of farmers and producers along the supply chain to make an economic return is a key element of creating a meat system that can support better meat consumption. An Eating Better approach can help provide opportunities for producers of high-quality, high-welfare and environmentally-friendly meat produced within the carrying capacity of the land for example as part of mixed farming systems.
There is some evidence that smaller scale, higher value production systems can also deliver on profitability. A Defra-funded review of farm incomes between organic and conventional systems found that organic systems for beef cattle and sheep farms were more profitable than their conventional counterparts. A reduction in meat demand and a shift in demand favouring meat from higher ‘value’ production systems may encourage more producers to move to lower volume but higher value-adding business models.
With over 40% of the meat we consume imported to the UK, there is scope to reduce our consumption before reducing UK production. For UK consumers and businesses, choosing UK-produced meat with a known provenance – whether local, regional or national – would reduce long and complex supply chains and support UK producers.
Consumer research shows that the provenance of meat is important to many consumers despite the recession. Some 59% of consumers say they prefer to buy UK- sourced meat and poultry, while 48% say they prefer to buy locally-sourced products when possible, according to a 2012 YouGov survey. These figures are likely to be higher since the horsemeat scandal.
Eating Better recognises the need to manage potential consequences for the livestock industry of reduced consumption and wants to support ways of changing consumption patterns that also benefit sustainable production and rural livelihoods.
Research has shown that choosing healthy sustainable food is less expensive than an unhealthy diet. Eating less meat can save money on shopping bills which makes it possible to trade up to ‘better’ meat without necessarily spending more.
Our food has, in relative terms, become cheaper over the last fifty years. But ‘cheap’ food has come at a price, not least for our health and for the environment. Scandals such as that in which horsemeat and pork were found in ‘beef’ products have shown where the drive for ever cheaper food can lead. Many more people are now choosing to put greater value on what they eat, and the people and animals that produced it and are willing to pay more as a result.
There are numerous economic benefits to the adoption of a healthy, sustainable diet. Poor diets contribute to serious non communicable diseases and obesity, which in the UK are a huge burden on the National Health Service (NHS) budget.
Health problems linked to obesity and being overweight cost the NHS over £5 billion a year and research from Oxford University’s Health Promotion Research Group has shown that eating meat no more than three times a week would prevent 45,000 early deaths from cancer, heart disease and stroke, and save the NHS £1.2 billion every year.
Not necessarily. Over three quarters of the world’s fish stocks are currently either fully or over exploited  and some scientists estimate that, at the current rates of depletion, most of the world’s fish stocks will collapse by 2048. It’s therefore important that we stop buying fish from over-exploited stocks and that the fish we do eat comes from sustainable sources such as Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified fisheries.
 52% of the world’s fish stocks are currently fully exploited (i.e. being fished at their maximum biological capacity), and a further 24% are over exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. Figures from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 2005 – see http://eng.msc.org/html/content_528.htm.
 Information from the Environmental Justice Foundation, see: http://www.ejfoundation.org/page357.html
The way we produce and consume food is also extremely wasteful. UK consumers throw away an estimated £2.1 billion worth of meat every year.
In the home we waste 10% of edible red meat, 14% of poultry, bacon and ham and 15% of meat products. As meat is relatively more expensive than other food items, reducing meat wastage offers a win-win of greenhouse gas reductions and financial savings for consumers. Love Food Hate Waste have some useful practical tips on reducing food waste in the home.
Food waste could also be much more efficiently used as animal feed for pigs and poultry – avoiding the food going to landfill or for incineration and reducing the amount of grain-based animal feed that needs to be sourced. The Pig Idea is campaigning to encourage the use of food waste to feed pigs and to lift the EU ban on the feeding of catering waste, or swill, to pigs. It is perfectly legal to use surplus bread from bakeries and waste fruit, vegetable, dairy, confectionary and bakery products from supermarkets as pig feed. More needs to be done to ensure that local authorities, food businesses and pig farmers are aware of this.
Eating Better is encouraging people in high consuming countries like the UK to eat less meat – whether red, white or processed meats - and to eat a greater amount and variety of plant-based foods.
We can do this by eating more meat-free meals or having meat-free days, eating meat in smaller portion sizes, using small quantities of meat to add flavor or reserving meat for special occasions.
We can also choose ‘better’ meat that is naturally-fed, has a known provenance and is produced to high animal welfare, environmental and quality standards. A ‘less but better’ approach to meat eating can also help support farmers without being more expensive for consumers.