Why slashing red meat production is a win for British farmers, public health and the planet

Adam Briggs
Beef and dairy cows stand in a field in Northants, UK - Bloomberg News

We have a new Prime Minister, a new cabinet, and a planet that’s burning.

For all the current political distractions, the climate emergency is the one constant. It is the greatest threat to health and global stability, and a major driver of migration, disease and war.

What we eat is part of the problem, and it’s part of the solution. 

If Britain can find the courage to change now it may give our farmers an unassailable first mover advantage for decades to come. 

The stats are stark: agriculture is responsible for up to 30 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, 40 per cent of global land use, and 70 per cent of freshwater use. Around 90 per cent of world fish stocks are either fully fished or overfished, and conversion of wild habitats for food production is the leading global cause of species loss.

This week’s IPCC report on climate change and land use confirms that without changing our dietary habits there is little hope of keeping global temperature increases to less than 2°C whilst feeding 10 billion people.

Temperature rises of 2°C will lead to more frequent extreme weather, bleach 99 per cent of coral reefs, and raise sea levels by nearly half a metre. Conservative estimates place the resulting human death toll at 250,000 per year from 2030 onwards.

And when it comes to agriculture, there’s no escaping the fact that livestock production – in particular, ruminants – is the leading contributor.

Around half of all UK food-related greenhouse gas emissions are due to beef and dairy. For the same weight, ruminant meat such as beef and lamb uses over five times the amount of land and has around ten times the greenhouse gas emissions than any other meat or veg. Producing a single kilo of beef requires over 15,000 litres of water. A kilo of chicken or pulses – other major protein sources – needs more like 4,000.

Changing our diets, as with many other climate mitigation strategies, are win-wins for both the planet and our health. It’s recommended that we need 50g of protein a day – around 10 per cent of calories – yet, on average in the UK we eat that from red and processed meat alone (beef, lamb, and pork), with total protein contributing more like 20 per cent of calories.

And red and processed meat are both linked to poor health. Red meat is classified as a likely carcinogen and processed meat as a ‘type 1’ carcinogen by the WHO (the same classification given to tobacco) due their effects on colorectal cancer. Their consumption is related to higher overall mortality and together they are estimated to be associated with 2.4 million deaths per year worldwide by 2020.

Studies of populations with different diets suggest that replacing animal protein with plant-based protein results in lower rates of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and overall death rates.

Indeed, a recent study simulating the health and environmental impacts of simply meeting global dietary guidelines (note, this still includes up to 43g of red meat) resulted in over 5 million fewer deaths per year and a 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared with the status quo. Both the health and the environmental benefits were mainly driven by eating less beef and lamb.

The UK can – and should – lead the world in driving this change in dietary habits. The UK is already a global leader in the rhetoric of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but this isn’t yet reflected in national policy. Now legally committed to net zero emissions by 2050, the UK government has delivered just one of last year’s 25 recommendations from the UK Committee on Climate Change.

It’s difficult to change what people eat or how they behave, but we do know that some approaches work better than others. Price is consistently the leading factor affecting the food people buy, and what we currently pay for our food doesn’t include the wider costs to society of its production and consumption – the impact of their emissions, their effect on biodiversity, their impact on our health.

Raising the prices of tobacco, alcohol, and more recently, soft drinks, have all demonstrated falls in purchases.

We should also raise the price of red and processed meat. 

One way to do this would be to make red and processed meat subject to VAT (currently meat bought for eating at home is VAT-exempt). A more nuanced tax-structure could be developed based on the equivalent costs of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions – currently estimated by the UK government at £67 per tonne of carbon dioxide or equivalent gases – increasing the price of a kilo of beef mince by around £1.70.

Such a tax won’t reduce UK emissions to zero, but it needs to be part of the solution. A 2016 study that included the wider costs to society from greenhouse gas emissions in food in the UK estimated reductions in emissions equivalent to heating nearly 1,500 homes for a year or 85,000 transatlantic Boeing 747 flights, alongside hundreds fewer premature deaths from healthier diets.

A tax will instinctively strike fear into many farmers but there are opportunities too. 

First, the impact on UK farmers of changing diets could be reduced by enhancing and accelerating the implementation of the Environmental Land Management scheme, offering subsidies for encouraging biodiversity and afforestation. This becomes increasingly possible with the UK leaving the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy.

And the impact on consumers – particularly those on low-incomes – could be mitigated by using revenues to subsidise healthier and more environmentally sustainable foods, or by rebalancing the wider tax system to benefit poorer households.

Second, the tax could help the UK corner a much larger segment of the global premium red meat market. A tax based on emissions would see higher relative price increases for more cheaply produced intensive red and processed meat, compared with higher-quality, lower-output farms. In place of volume all British farmers should be scaling down and prioritising quality.  

But why should the UK act alone? The impacts of climate change don’t respect national borders and this is an area where the UK can genuinely take the lead – and gain a competitive first mover advantage.

At some point the world will be forced to reduce the amount of meat and dairy it consumes (the UK Committee on Climate Change says we need a 20 per cent fall in beef, lamb and dairy consumption to get to net zero emissions, the Eating Better alliance suggests 50 per cent less by 2030), and the UK agricultural system has the opportunity to get ahead of this curve.

It’s a win for British farmers, it’s a win for health, and it’s a win for the planet.

  • Adam Briggs is a public health doctor and an academic visitor at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford.

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