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A meaty issue: Nudges not tax needed to cut consumption, food strategy says

Image by RitaE from Pixabay

By Emily Beament, PA Environment Correspondent

People could be encouraged to eat less meat with investment in alternative proteins that could be used as sustainable options in ready meals, the UK's National Food Strategy suggests.

The report warns meat consumption needs to be cut by 30% by 2030 to reduce methane emissions from cattle and sheep that help drive global warming, and to free up land for absorbing carbon and boosting nature.

While most people recognise the need to reduce meat consumption, the report, which draws on conversations with citizens as part of the process, said a tax to drive the shift away from meat was unpopular.

And it would penalise poorer households because it would hike prices more on cheap cuts or mince, the strategy’s final report said.

Instead it said the Government should invest £50 million in supporting the development of alternative proteins such as lab-grown meat or plant-based foods, which could create thousands of jobs in factories and farming.

It urged the UK to position itself at the front of the new industry of alternative proteins, which it said could easily replace ingredients such as mince or milk powder in lasagne or even the meat in a takeaway sandwich.

The report comes as supermarkets are already increasing and promoting their plant-based options, and meat-free alternatives are becoming more popular.

It also said Government should also reform buying standards for schools, hospitals and prisons to ensure taxpayers are paying for healthy and sustainable food to be served, and as another nudge towards less meat consumption.

Government investment in innovation will speed up measures to cut methane emissions, such as adding certain ingredients such as seaweed to feed to reduce the amount of the potent greenhouse gas from meat and dairy, the report said.

But cutting methane is not enough, as the UK also needs to free up land for absorbing carbon emissions from other hard-to-tackle sectors such as aviation, by restoring forests or peatlands.

The report suggests around 5-8% of the UK’s total farmland would need to be freed from production almost entirely, mainly to plant broadleaf woodland and restore peat bogs, focusing on areas such as uplands which are least productive.

It recommends mapping England’s countryside to see which areas could be chiefly for food production, for carbon storage and nature, or for low intensity wildlife-friendly farming.

This could include reductions in sheep, restoring wild features and introducing hardy cattle – but that requires sufficient long-term Government support, the report said, and urged the payments scheme for environmental farming to be guaranteed until 2029 to help farmers plan.

The Government should also provide around £500-£700 million a year, around a third of the total scheme, for paying farmers to manage the land to actively store carbon and restore nature, through broadleaf woodland, restored upland peat and species-rich grassland and heath.

The strategy also warns of the need to maintain high food standards in trade deals or British farmers risk being undercut by cheap imports that are produced in an unsustainable way.

Responding to the report, Simon Billing, executive director at Eating Better alliance of groups urging a switch to less and better meat and dairy, said: “As a nation, rebalancing our diets with a lot more veg and less meat, will enable us to eat better meat from the best of British farms with the highest environmental and animal welfare standards.”

Mark Bridgeman, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said: “The strategy highlights the need to properly reward farmers for environmental improvements above and beyond what they already do.”

He urged the Government to understand the role livestock played in environmental management and not to succumb to the “false narrative” that meat is inherently bad.

“It is right to consider alternative ways of farming and different uses for land. Enhanced tree planting and peatland restoration will play an important role in further boosting landowner’s efforts to mitigate climate change and biodiversity decline.

“But any change in land use, particularly to the extent that the strategy recommends, must be driven by the market and positive incentives rather than compulsion – and not come at the expense of the country’s ability to feed itself,” he said.

David Edwards, director of food strategy at WWF, said: “The way we produce our food is key to the UK reaching its net zero and nature restoration targets, so we must bolster funding of nature-friendly farming and set core environmental standards to stop the import of products which rely on the worst farming practices for nature, are already banned in the UK, and which undermine British farmers’ efforts towards more sustainable agriculture.

“We should not waste this golden opportunity to give the British public the affordable, sustainable and healthy food they want and deserve.”

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