Our global food system is dysfunctional in multiple ways. Poor diet is the most common cause of death globally, accounting for 11 million deaths in 2017; the UNEP, the World Bank and the WEF have all made explicit links between global pandemics and food production practices; and food systems are one of the primary drivers of biodiversity loss worldwide. To cap things off, food systems are a huge contributor to climate change, which is our focus here. The IPCC estimates that they account for 21-37% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. This is a sufficient proportion that were fossil fuel emissions to stop completely, food system emissions alone would preclude us meeting either the 1.5°C or 2°C targets of the Paris Agreement. The graph below from Exponential Roadmap paints this picture in vivid colours. For all the focus on electrifying transport, retrofitting buildings and preserving global forests, transitioning to healthy plant-based diets is one of the largest singular emissions reduction actions we can take.
Of these food system emissions, an outsized proportion are caused by the production of meat, particularly the raising of ruminant livestock for beef, pork and lamb. Together with dairy, meat is responsible for 60% of global agricultural emissions, despite providing only 18% of the calories we consume. There are a number of reasons for this, but put simply, using crops to raise and support animals is incredibly inefficient versus simply eating those crops ourselves. A 2018 meta-analysis study published in the journal Science and cited almost 800 times and reproduced below by Our World in Data outlines the key sources of food system emissions. All beef is not equal, and measuring emissions is notoriously difficult, but there are some clear trends.
This graph represents an uncomfortable truth for many, and understandably so, for millions around the world depend on raising livestock for their income. This has, however, led to the spread of misinformation and some instances of cultural conflict. For example, in the UK the growing ‘Veganuary’ (in support of vegan diets) movement received pushback from a ‘Regenuary’ (in support of local regenerative agriculture) movement, inspired by the commonly held idea that ‘eating local’ is best. The study above theoretically settles the debate (note the size of ‘transport’ emissions), although it continues to rage.
Clearly, then, if we are to stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we need to reduce our meat consumption, which is currently predicted to grow 88% by 2050. Just how much we need to cut is slightly less clear, and exactly how we go about doing it is downright opaque. What WILL hopefully become evident throughout the rest of the article, however, is that we have, and will need, plenty of options.
The UK government’s climate advisory body, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) published a meat reduction roadmap as part of its 6th carbon budget. While a welcome development, it raises two concerns for anyone worried about climate change. Firstly, it highlights the lack of substantial government action on this issue, even when compared to other parts of the low-carbon transition, for this is the first real engagement by government with the climate impacts of the food system. In the report, the CCC sets the UK a target of a 20% reduction in meat consumption by 2035. The second concern is this figure.
Assessing diets is notoriously difficult, often relying on self-reported survey data. Despite high degrees of variability between studies, the CCC estimate seems notably low. The EAT-Lancet commission found that meat consumption must be reduced by 80% in Europe and North America in order to remain within our planetary boundaries. A report published in Nature a couple of years earlier suggested that we needed a 70% reduction in the amount of red meat we eat. Our own calculations using two further studies are less drastic, but still significantly more troubling than the CCC calculations.
The purpose of this article is not to pass judgement on these different scenarios (although someone probably needs to do that). Instead, it is to work out how we might get to any one of them. Across three reports, the WEF proposes three interlinking policy foci for decarbonising meat production; changes to current production systems, consumer behaviour change, and alternative proteins. We will argue here that levers must be pulled in each area in order to meet the scale of the challenge, but the limiting and therefore decisive factor is the creation of an accessible alternative protein market. What is more, inclusive and forward-looking narratives are needed to overcome the complex political economy of global food systems.
Here, farmers become central players in the transition. Ample opportunity has been identified within the production process to cut emissions. Particular entry points are novel animal feedstocks, the use of food and industry waste streams, reducing antibiotic use, new breeds of cattle, manure management, and land use. Converting arable farms to produce foods such as legumes (which have high protein content and nitrogen fixing abilities) directly for human consumption is another powerful option. Farmers currently receive subsidies and incentives in many countries. These could be reworked such that they support these practices while engaging and supporting farming communities, who, if we are not careful, stand to lose out from this transition. Using subsidies to pay farmers to re-wild their land (payment for ecosystem services (PES)) is another much mooted way to both support them and reduce emissions.
In designing policy instruments to change production systems, policymakers must be aware of carbon leakage, a process whereby a reduction in emissions in one area is offset by a comparable increase elsewhere. In this way, forms of regulation can lead to demand being met from other areas where requirements are less stringent, as was found to be the case when standards of palm oil production were introduced. Of the three policy foci, this also has the smallest potential for emissions reductions, as it simply improves the emissions standards of meat production rather than stopping it altogether. Additionally, it only accounts for production within the policy jurisdiction. For countries like the UK where around 50% of food is imported, this presents a sizeable issue.
Inducing consumer behaviour change could induce a shift on a scale not achievable by producers, negating both territorial and consumption-based emissions. A shift in consumer sentiment would undoubtedly be the most effective way to reduce the emissions from meat production. While there have been positive signs throughout the pandemic of increased experimentation with alternative diets, how easy would it really be to get millions worldwide to cut back, or give up on, meat?
The most common policy proposal here is a tax on meat, as suggested by the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change last year. Theoretically, with its health and environmental impacts, eating meat fits the remit for socially undesirable behaviours which a so called ‘sin’ tax is designed to discourage. Practically, however, it is not so simple. Meat is very, very political. Even ignoring the particular symbolism of meat, choice of food in general has been argued to be a fundamental human right, and any engagement from politicians is often described as an overreach of government.
Examples so far show no sign of change to these commonly held ideas. In July, incensed Australian senator Matt Canavan described a carbon tax on meat as the ‘literal barbeque stopper of Australian politics.’ In February, Lyon’s mayor was accused of putting ‘ideology on our children’s plates’, and a false rumour that President Biden’s climate plan would limit meat consumption caused uproar among Republicans in Congress. It comes as no surprise then, that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ruled out a meat tax, and Food and Environment Secretary George Eustice has said that ‘lecturing people on their diets is the wrong approach.’ These examples show the danger of over-politicising climate action. This is particularly the case amidst against the contemporary backdrop of what many describe as the ‘culture wars’ within much of the ‘developed’ world. Meat versus plant-based consumption sadly fits perfectly into this narrative of generational and demographic conflict as we have seen in both France and Spain. We have been warned before to be careful of over-politicising climate change, and a tax on meat seems a particularly sensitive trigger for sending the whole fragile house of climate commitments crumbling down.
So, a meat tax is a political minefield. Does it even work? Evidence is mixed. The successful UK levy on sugary drinks reduced total sugar consumption as producers were forced to reformulate their drinks, but it did not reduce sales. As covered, this change to production would be of limited effect in the case of meat, and likely not worth the political risk. What is more, measuring sugar content is a whole different ball game to calculating the lifecycle emissions of meat produced in varying conditions around the world. There are three more key issues with a tax. First, if poorly designed, it could hit the vulnerable hard while making little difference to the habits of wealthier, higher volume consumers. Second, and similar to enforcing production standards, a tax could lead to carbon leakage whereby reduced consumption leads to increased exports which outcompete inefficient production elsewhere, potentially leading to greater absolute global intake. Third, taxation must be complemented with other fiscal measures to avoid creating perverse incentives which encourage the consumption of unhealthy goods, goods which often have lower emissions values. In sum, a tax could work, but it would need to be painstakingly designed and offer sufficient compensatory mechanisms for those negatively affected. In reality, it is only likely to work if other conditions are in place, such as attractive alternatives and inclusive narratives, both to be covered.
Tax is of course not the only way to influence consumer habits. ‘Nudge’ strategies such as product labelling are touted as a low-impact way to alter behaviour. Enforcing supermarkets to add life cycle emissions to the labelling of all their products would indeed be very effective and should be introduced as widely as possible. The main stumbling block is calculating the emissions from long and complex global supply chains and ensuring that this process is standardised between competitors. Currently, simpler certification schemes such as that offered by the Carbon Trust are gaining in popularity, although they have the same methodological issues, and their binary nature is arguably obscuring. Netflix’s viral, if somewhat exaggerated, documentary ‘Seaspiracy’ thrust these issues into the public eye. Incentivising the food industry to create adverts that lead to less meat consumption is a low-risk policy measure that can help to shift the needle. Public catering services can also play a role by offering more meat-free options. Indeed, a number of public sector caterers in the UK last year combined to form the 20% less meat campaign, attempting to do just that. While some will inevitably see this as an overreach of government, or putting ‘ideology on plates’, it could be a crucial step to changing the habits of the next generation.
There is a strong argument within academic circles in particular that focusing on consumer behaviour change puts too much focus on the individual rather than the state and the corporation with whom the power to change the climate crisis really lies (see here for example). It does indeed seem no coincidence that the UK government’s mumblings on food systems change have thus far focused on nudges, market forces and abstract notions of behaviour change. As well as over-focusing on individual behaviour, such policies don’t attend sufficiently to the structures and assemblages that may cause these behaviours. For example, a UNICEF report highlighted that many children live in areas termed ‘food swamps’ or ‘food deserts’, where unhealthy fast food is everywhere, or affordable healthy food is inaccessible. If these structures are not reworked, behaviour will not change.
The third of the WEF’s foci encapsulates a continuum from protein rich plants (e.g. lentils) through more processed products such as soy-based tofu, through plant-based meat analogues, to cultured and fermented meat. Clearly, these products represent a key part of the dietary transition, as we need something to transition to. The first category, protein rich plants, needs no development in and of itself; strategies to invoke consumer behaviour changes will be needed in order to accelerate their uptake.
While this will be important, we believe that fostering the development of an accessible meat alternative market is the key to shifting global diets. By this, we mean the remaining categorisations on the continuum above. Why is this so important? Take a look at the picture below.
This photo is taken from the EAT-Lancet commission report: Food in The Anthropocene. It represents example meals taken from the planetary health diet, a diet in line with Net Zero ambitions as well as health targets. It only considers direct plant protein. The gaping, glaring question is who is going to eat this? In the UK, we currently eat 86g of meat per day, of which 31% is processed. It would be marvellous for health, the economy and the planet if we optimised our diets as above, but food has become more than just fuel; food is a cultural artefact that contributes to our social lives, identity, and happiness, as well as to our health. Therefore, asking people not only to give up meat, an issue laden with political tension, but to re-design their entire diet, hardly seems viable. If we do not accept this, we are at risk of letting the pursuit of perfection impede progress. We are unlikely to convert all of the 69% of unprocessed meat in our diet to lentils and similar plants, and we are even less likely to do the same with the 31% of processed meat, which could so easily be converted to a plant-based burger or equivalent. While health concerns are incredibly important, their pursuit must not unreasonably impede the race to net zero or both missions will fail. What is more, forms of alternative protein are in many cases showing to be as beneficial to human health as protein rich plants.
There are further reasons why we think developing the meat alternative market is the most important factor in driving a dietary transition. A World Resources Institute (WRI) working paper offers four criteria for inducing a social change like a dietary shift. The first two are minimising disruption (i.e. offering attractive alternatives), and selling a compelling benefit (such as taste or price). Both of these criteria are met by meat alternatives. Across the literature, investing in a thriving alternative protein sector is seen as a low-risk, non-intrusive, low-cost, low-regret policy measure which will help to change the consumer ‘choice architecture’, enabling a shift away from meat. Just as the decisions of kids growing up in food deserts are heavily influenced if not controlled by the structures around them, as are those of kids growing up where a healthy plant-based burger is the same price, same taste and in the same shop as a beef burger.
These last points are key. The SMF finds that the key determinants of food choice are cost, taste and convenience. Currently, the meat alternative market lags on all three of these. This is why government can have such an impact. The market is growing; in fact it has been estimated to be growing at double the rate of the global meat and poultry market, accounting for 1% of meat sales in the US and reaching a sales value of €502 million in the UK, a country which leads the European market.
Although the sector is growing, it needs to grow faster, and with more certainty, to sufficiently revolutionise our diets. Price in particular needs to drop to facilitate this. Many reports point to the development of the renewables industry, which was ‘pump-primed’ by key governments in the 1990s and 2000s before costs fell up to 75% from 2010, as a template for what is possible. Governments can offer a number of services to this burgeoning industry, with benefits to the health and sustainability of their population, as well as the long-term health of the public purse.
1. Incentivising supermarkets – An important 2021 report argued that what venture capital firms seek most is a credible route to market for their up and coming investments. In the case of meat alternatives, supermarkets and large corporations offer exactly that. The report believes that, given the right incentives (including subsidies and regulations), incumbent corporations could cause the market to explode, resulting in a massive shift ‘in a single generation’. Partnerships between start-ups and incumbents are already emerging, such as that between Pepsi-Co and Beyond Meat.
2. Public finance can play an active roll in de-risking and kickstarting developments. The meat alternative sector can be CAPEX intensive and high risk. Private finance may therefore not unlock the long-term opportunities it contains. Government can both do so and provide an on-ramp for private finance.
3. In many areas the sector is pre-competitive. Government is best placed to ensure that knowledge gets shared around to maximise the potential of the sector through the establishment of research institutes and neutral bodies. The National Graphene Institution is the perfect example of this in action. In the US, the NFS has recommended that the Biden administration spends $2 billion on establishing 20 interdisciplinary research centres. The UK by contrast has made available a £90 million grant for research and innovation without any real direction (all stats from the SMF).
4. The government can, as discussed under consumer behaviour, use narratives to encourage uptake, as well as deploying its substantial marketing capital to the cause. It can also encourage public institutions like school and hospitals to use meat alternatives, creating a steady demand and stimulating more.
Together, such policy measures can help drive the meat alternative sector towards parity in cost, taste and accessibility, measures currently holding it back. Once this occurs, a major shift could be upon us. One final ingredient, touched upon throughout this piece, is necessary to catalyse this shift: narrative. In his seminal 2015 book ‘Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change’, George Marshall uses decades of behavioural study to argue that humans are motivated by stories, and that the cold hard scientific dialogue around climate change does not do it for us. Intriguingly, many of the cold hard scientific reports that were trawled through for this piece offered the same conclusion - six years on, it seems that people are taking note. The reports generally focused on building trust in meat alternatives through context specific narratives. For example, the WEF notes that food safety is a major concern in the Chinese market, so the safety of meat alternatives compared to traditional meat can be harnessed. Similarly, it argues that a narrative of ‘ultra-meat’ could be successful in the USA where climate concern remains lower than other markets but cutting-edge technologies such as Tesla’s electric vehicles have done well. The political economy of the dietary shift must be considered in order to create inclusive policies and accompanying narratives, or many, particularly in the agricultural industry as well as in vulnerable parts of society, stand to lose out, creating unnecessary and damaging conflict. People must feel included, and people must feel part of something bigger.
While specific policy levers may depend on your political opinion, it seems clear that fostering an alternative meat market is essential for inducing a successful dietary transition. Production efficiencies must be improved, but will not solve the problem. A shift in consumer demand is, obviously, an integral part of the transition, but is unlikely to drive change alone within the available timescale, and trying to force it could be politically incendiary to the point of disaster. Meat alternatives provide low-risk policy measures that can reconfigure the consumer ‘choice architecture’, thus facilitating changes in demand patterns. Essential to this process are context specific narratives of progress and inclusion. With such an approach, the same characteristics that make dietary shifts so difficult in the first place, such as consumer agency, marketing power and cultural significance could combine to make a wholesale shift possible within a very short timeframe.
To end, we want to highlight the potential of one technology that we have touched on and think could disrupt the whole process: precision fermentation. Using microbes as factories at first sounds far-fetched, but big food system players like AB InBev and Ingredion are already investing in the technology. In a nutshell, precision fermentation uses advances in DNA sequencing and printing to snip desirable parts of DNA from a cell and reproduce them in a lab at scale. It is a simple premise built on awe-inspiring technology, and one with huge potential. The new cells are grown in vats in the same way as beer, giving the whole process a small footprint and making it up to an order of magnitude more efficient than livestock production. The same practice already safely provides us with myriad consumer goods and medicines. Tony Seba’s pioneering thinktank RethinkX have given some of the most optimistic forecasts for the technology, including a 70% market share for ‘modern’ meats, including those produced by process fermentation, with the research on precision fermentation endorsed by high profile journalist George Monbiot. No one can be certain of the future of this innovation, but one thing is for sure, if it can become cost efficient and made widely accessible, the benefits it could bring in terms of cost, emissions, land-use, disease mitigation and animal welfare give it revolutionary potential.