Meat consumption debate urged

The government and livestock sector must face up to the debate about meat consumption if the UK is to have a sustainable future, leading environmental groups have warned.

Speaking to Meat Trades Journal, campaigners from Friends of the Earth (FOE) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said the industry had made good progress on reducing some areas of its environmental impact, but would not be able to go on avoiding a dialogue on meat consumption.

“We recognise the industry has done wonderful things. It has been ahead of the game and has done really good work on production efficiency — we take our hats off to that,” said Duncan Williamson, senior policy advisor (food) at WWF-UK.

“But we do need to look at meat consumption at some stage, particularly if we are going to have a sustainable future in the next 30 or 40 years. Our resources are limited and there is only so far we can go with production efficiencies.”

Clare Oxburrow, FOE’s senior farming campaigner, said: “We absolutely acknowledge that consumption is a difficult one, but the debate needs to start and it needs to happen. With the growing population putting more and more pressure on resources, on water, on land and on climate emissions, we need to start to address it.”

Both groups insisted that they were not recommending vegetarianism, but that people eat less, better-quality meat. “We have never said that everyone needs to go vegetarian, it is about moderation. Broadly, we are talking about less in quantity and better quality, and that includes a decent return for the farmer,” said Oxburrow.

Williamson pointed out that research last year revealed that European consumers are now eating four times the amount of chicken they did 50 years ago and 80% more pork.

“We are not saying ‘don’t eat meat’. We say ‘eat meat’. It is a brilliant source of protein and people love it. But, at the same time, people are eating more white meat than ever before. We have got to start looking at that because meat does have environmental consequences,” he said.

Campaigners argue that the UK industry could stand to benefit from a change in the way that people eat meat. “When we say ‘eat less but eat better-quality’, we are thinking about UK meat,” said Williamson.

“UK livestock producers are in a great position, because they do lead the world, they have high welfare standards, they know how to farm and their extensive beef and lamb systems are the envy of the world.”

The WWF wants the government to convene a national stakeholder group that looks at defining what a sustainable diet is and discusses they way forward.

“No-one has tried to define what better meat is. We would love to sit down with producers, processors, retailers and government and try and work out what we mean by better meat and how that benefits UK farmers,” said Williamson.