First broadcast on 31 August 2021
In this episode, Tom Heap considers how changing the menus in schools, hospitals and the armed forces could help in the fight against climate change.
How to improve mass catering for the planet. Tom Heap considers how changing the menus in schools, hospitals and the armed forces could help in the fight against climate change.
Andy Jones, chair of the Public Sector Catering 100 Group, explains how his own farming family background informs his drive to reduce the amount of meat served in canteens and increase the choice of vegan and vegetarian options.
Tom visits hospitals in Nottingham to see the drive in action and joins climate scientist Dr Tamsin Edwards to consider the carbon impact of a broader shift from beef to beans.
Listen now on BBC Radio 4
We asked Society Fellows Dr Rosie Robison from the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University and Dr Tara Garnett from the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford to offer some observations on the potential of meat-eaters around the world reducing their meat consumption by 20% in reducing carbon emissions. Their points take some of the themes of the programme a step further.
Carbon emission savings would depend on what people replace their meat consumption with. For example, replacing chicken with cheese could actually increase carbon emissions, in some cases.
The evolution of supply chains takes time, and there will be repercussions in terms of changes of land use, investment in infrastructure, and jobs, all of which need to be considered.
In addition, the social and cultural place of meat in our diet is complex. Meat is more than just calories.
‘Limiting factors’ can be interpreted in various ways. There can be issues of:
a. acceptability and the feasibility/effectiveness of any policies that seek to achieve this reduction.
b. depending on the design of policies intended to reduce meat consumption there can be unintended consequences for the environment, for health, for social equity and for animal welfare.
To address b. options include:
Regulations, e.g. standards and specifications in public procurement and reporting
Changes to pricing, e.g. making the price of the product reflect its environmental, health or social costs - taxation design could be aimed at producers or at consumers; farming policy, trade - the last one in particular is really not currently going in the right direction
Encouraging/making the industry do things differently, e.g. limitations on advertising, requiring them to report the carbon footprint of a typical basket of goods that they sell
Information/awareness raising - anything from changes to the school curriculum to eco labels or large public messaging campaigns
All of these have their difficulties and potentially unintended consequences and none of them alone can be seen as the silver bullet answer. Much experimentation and the design of a bundle of policies all aimed at working together with the intention of meeting multiple interconnected objectives across the environment, social equity, health, and animal welfare - and of course a lot more joined up government – is needed. We also need policies that work at all levels of government, including at the local authority level (e.g. changes to planning policy to limit, say, the proliferation of usually meat oriented fast-food outlets). The market obviously has a role to play too, but the market operates within a regulatory framework whose vision and expectation need to be much clearer.
Children collecting food at a canteen (Image: WavebreakMediaMicro/AdobeStock)
Reduction in occurrence of some health conditions. For example, bowel cancer and heart disease are linked to red and processed meat consumption.
Reduced risk of animal to human virus transmission if standards are also improved.
Reduced pressure on global water supplies since crops require less water than livestock.
Reduced land use, potentially freeing land for wildlife/rewilding.
Reduced animal suffering and slaughter, improving animal welfare.
Aiming for zero meat would not be the most carbon efficient way to feed humans. This is because:
Some land is mostly or only suitable for animal rearing (rather than grain or vegetables).
There are some advantages of mixed farming methods, i.e. livestock alongside crops.
Some products of the food production chain are only suitable for animal (rather than human) consumption.
There are health risks to reducing protein in diet, especially for those already not getting adequate nutrition, as well as if protein is replaced by carbohydrates.
Reduced meat consumption could lead to increased waste in the food production chain if not well managed, i.e. we need to be eating the whole animal (e.g. offal, tripe as well) not just choosing ‘popular’ cuts.
For a 20% reduction in meat consumption globally most of the above could likely be mitigated, but some of these factors will come into play if making deeper reductions.
Everything depends on the design of policies aimed at reducing meat consumption. This is a table I put together a few years ago which sketches out some of the possible unintended consequences of poorly designed policies aimed at reducing meat consumption:
Change in practice
People eat less meat but more refined, processed carbohydrates
Low GHG emissions but are poor nutritionally and have other environmental downsides
People eat less meat but eat more high impact fruits and vegetables (air freighted beans, berries and cherries, hothoused ratatouille vegetables)
Possibly good for health but potentially even higher GHG emissions than meat
Higher meat prices cause people to cut down on their meat spending but maintain quantity by eating less healthy meats such as sausages or fatty mince
The impacts on GHG emissions unclear; there will be benefits for resource efficiency; impact on health negative
Red to white effect
GHG oriented policies lead to people shifting from red meat to poultry and pork
GHG reductions are reduced, mixed health impacts, potentially negative for resource efficiency, biodiversity, soy dependence and animal welfare
Higher meat prices cause people to increase spending on meat (maintaining consumption) but cut down on their fruit and vegetable consumption instead
Negative outcomes for health and for the environment
People maintain their regular levels of meat consumption but buy lower welfare meat instead
Environment impact mixed, impacts on health neutral or negative, on animal welfare probably poor
People shift towards more sustainable eating but feel justified in buying a new gadget or flying off on holiday
Impacts on health positive, on
environment depends on substitute
People buy the ‘right’ foods but end up not eating them and throwing them away
Increase in food waste and associated environmental costs
Leaky system effect
People in the UK consume a healthier more sustainable eating patterns but farmers increase their exports; or farmers in the UK reduce their production but imports of meat simply increase
No net benefit - impact swapping
People eat a more sustainably; livestock farmers go out of business and either remain unemployed or are employed in other sectors (e.g. rural tourism, service industries)
Depends on health impact of employment changes and environmental impacts of substitute activity
Adapted from Garnett, T. 2014. Changing to healthier & more sustainable diets: how can this be achieved? Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford
Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health
This report recommended a deeper reduction of a maximum of 28g beef, lamb and pork per day per person. (Total production of these three is currently 200 Mt = 25kg raw meat per person in the world = 19kg cooked meat = 52g per person per day cooked meat).
Scarborough, P. et al. 2014, Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK, Climate Change, 125, 179-192
39 Ways to Save the Planet is a new radio series by BBC Radio 4 developed in partnership with the Society and broadcast in 2021. It showcases 39 ideas to relieve the stress that climate change is placing on the Earth. In each 15 minute episode Tom Heap and Dr Tamsin Edwards meet the people behind a fresh and fascinating idea to cut the carbon.
Over the course of 2021, the Society will be producing events and digital content to accompany the series.
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