Meat and dairy consumption are marbled through British culture like the fat in a good T-bone. Over 60% of the UK’s agricultural output comes from livestock, with dairy and beef making up the bulk of this.84 These foods are staples of our diets. But for how much longer, when it’s clear we’re harming the planet for the sake of a steak?
Sixty-two per cent of Britons say they are worried enough about climate change to change their lifestyle or urge the Government to act.85 In 2019, 31% of Britons rated ‘eating a plant-based diet’ as one of the three most important factors in reducing individuals’ greenhouse gas emissions.86
Our research found that around half of Britons (49%) would eat a plant-based substitute for meat, only slightly more than the average worldwide (42%).87 Generally, though, people in Britain (80%) and worldwide (75%) would prefer to have animal products as part of their diet.
Scientific consensus suggests that eating a lot of meat and dairy products is unsustainable: for our personal health, the worldwide population, and the climate.
But changing minds won’t be easy. In August, Goldsmiths University caused a media storm when they banned beef in campus food outlets in the name of sustainability.88
British farmers responded with frustration,89 pointing out that not all burgers are created equal when it comes to carbon emissions. Grass-fed British beef has a lower impact than intensively farmed, soy-fed beef and, in some cases, less impact than a bar of chocolate.
The fact remains, however, that a portion of the highest impact vegetable protein emits less than a portion of the lowest impact animal protein. Climate-wise, beans beat beef and lentils lick liver, hands down.90 Awareness of this fact is growing fast, yet while the profile of veganism has grown massively in recent years,91 in 2016 we found just 1% of the British public self-identify as vegan.
“But what of the Greggs vegan sausage roll?” I hear you cry. True: businesses are beginning to respond to this ‘delicious but disastrous’ conundrum. In 2018, the UK launched more vegan products than any other nation,92 with some of these products falling under the futuristic heading of ‘meat analogues’, a category that includes everything from the familiar (QuornTM) to the strange (plant-based burgers that bleed ‘real’ blood).93 But while tofu is increasingly on the table, meat analogues aren’t necessarily to everyone’s taste.
A more palatable answer, then, is simply ensuring that we actually eat the food we buy. Britons waste an estimated 156kg of food per person every year.94 By reducing the amount we waste, we could keep eating the same foods and still lessen our climate impact.
There is no silver bullet that will help us put our mouths where our morals are when it comes to meat and dairy. But, through moderation in all things, increasing vegan choices as part of flexible, meat and dairy reducing diets, by buying local, less but better-quality, and eating everything we buy, we can continue to support farmers. Through trying new things, we can support innovators to please our palates, without leaving a bad taste in anyone’s mouth.
One thing is for certain, however. For these changes to stick, we all need to feel excitement about a new food future. Maligning meat, demonising dairy, and villainising vegans95 won’t provide the answers we urgently need.