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Operation (eat less) Red Meat: Will a plant-based diet save the planet?

Operation (eat less) Red Meat: Will a plant-based diet save the planet?

In the weeks before COP26 last year, the UK Government published – and then hastily deleted – a research paper on changing consumer behaviour.

Written by the independent Behavioural Insights Team, the so-called Nudge Unit, it explored ways of encouraging the public to act differently to help meet national net-zero targets.

Some of the potentially unpalatable ideas included the promotion of a plant-based diet, a tax on high-carbon foodstuffs and an environmental rating system for competing supermarket chains.

“Shifting dietary habits towards more environmental options (e.g plant-based, local) and enabling sustainable agriculture is fundamental to achieving net zero,” the report said.

It went on: “Effective diet-related interventions will lie at the intersection of upstream and midstream strategies, with a lesser role for downstream interventions targeting individual hearts and minds.” Translation: Some stick = more carrots. 

That our diets need to change, and change fast, is no longer up for debate. Around a quarter of the world’s emissions come from food production, with livestock and fisheries responsible for around a third of that. While there are also emissions associated with crop production, if more of us opted for a largely plant-based diet, it would help reduce emissions associated with burping and farting cattle as well as the impact of clearing land for livestock cultivation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the problem is far from straightforward. While it’s generally agreed that eating less meat is environmentally beneficial, Scotland’s climate means that fruit and vegetables often have to travel thousands of air miles before ending up in our shops.

So, could we just start growing more of our own?

“A huge proportion of Scottish land is not suitable for growing crops,” says Kate Hopper, NFU Scotland’s policy manager for climate change. “It’s really a non-starter to switch all that land we use for animals over to growing crops. 

“We would end up importing our meat from elsewhere because we still have a huge proportion of Scottish and UK consumers who (want to eat meat) …we’d be exporting or offshoring our emissions to a different country.”

For those who believe we’re not moving fast enough to tackle the climate crisis, that argument will sound remarkably similar to those coming from the oil and gas industry, which argues that scaling back production in the North Sea will lead to the UK importing more of its energy. 

But unlike energy, diet is an area where consumers are incredibly powerful. Indeed, while it’s easy to feel disenfranchised in the face of rising temperatures and increasingly extreme weather events, changing what we eat is the one thing we can all do for the benefit of the environment. 

No sooner had the Nudge Unit’s report been published online by the Department for Business back in October, than it was taken down, its ideas seemingly too controversial. For now, at least. The report continues to live on elsewhere on the internet, however, suggesting at least a few possible directions of travel.

One suggestion is that the £2.4bn spent each year by the UK Government on providing food for hospitals, schools and prisons could be used to “normalise plant-based food and signal the legitimacy of a healthy and sustainable food system”.

The report notes that asking people to eat less meat and dairy will be a “major political challenge”. Adding: “Effort to win ‘hearts and minds’ may be better spent building public support for bold policy, such as a producer-facing carbon tax on ruminant products.”

Amid a boom in plant-based products, it’s easy to think that Britain has become a nation of avocado toast-munching, coconut latte-slurping vegans. Most supermarkets now have a plant-based range and McDonald’s recently launched The McPlant, its first vegan burger, made from pea protein. 

But while a recent YouGov survey found that more than a third of people in the UK are interested in following a meat-free diet, it is thought only around 2-3 per cent of the population is vegan or vegetarian 100 per cent of the time. 

Hopper says that meat will remain an important part of the diet for the majority of people for years to come.

“Agriculture is one of the major contributors to greenhouse gases in Scotland and we can’t shy away from that,” she says. “There’s a challenge there, but the main issue for us is that we still need to be able to produce sustainable food in Scotland.

“To do that, you need to recognise that food security and sustainability, along with biodiversity need to go hand in hand. Being able to produce our own meat, not having to import it from abroad, is a significant benefit to the climate.”

While much of Scotland’s land may not be suitable for growing crops, increasing levels of technological innovation mean that there are now other ways of cultivating vegetables usually associated with sunnier climes. 

Professor Derek Stewart is director of the Advanced Plant Growth Centre at the James Hutton Institute, which is at the forefront of research into controlled-environment agriculture, basically the growing of plants indoors.

“We’re trying to change the paradigm of sticking seeds in the ground, growing them, waiting and then harvesting,” he says. “Climate change has made that incredibly difficult. The way we farm has to change.

“One way to get around that for a lot of these crops is to grow them in controlled environments.”

Stewart believes the solution to meeting the climate challenge lies in vertical farming, the practice of growing crops indoors stacked one on top of the other. It’s a method which lends itself to urban environments – such as Nature Urbaine, a rooftop farm in central Paris – as much as the countryside.

“The farmers can construct different vertical farms of different shapes and sizes, depending on what they want,” Stewart says. “Rather than a farming operation, it’s almost a manufacturing operation – it’s technology-based growing. You don’t need many people, just someone with expertise to run the system. I can see those who are primarily working in livestock being able to pivot into this space quite easily.

“Diets are changing. We’re seeing a progression away from low-grade meat to less meat, but of higher quality. I’m 58 and there’s been a revolution since I was young, away from really crappy food. The quality of food now is night and day compared to what it was like in the 70s. The quality of fresh produce has improved remarkably even in the past 10 years.”

Published in 2014, the Scottish Government’s Good Food Nation plan set out a vision that by 2025, Scotland would be a country where people “take pride and pleasure in, and benefit from, the food they produce, buy, cook, serve and eat each day”.

As well as making sure food is sustainably sourced, the plan aspires to promote a better understanding of what constitutes a healthy meal among a population historically known for having one of the worst diets in Europe. Indeed, access to healthy food remains a challenge for many families, especially as rising inflation caused by the pandemic pushes the cost of living ever higher.

Poverty campaigner Jack Monroe, herself a former foodbank user, is among those to raise concerns among the rising cost of food. In a series of tweets about the spiraling cost of everyday items, Monroe said the cheapest pasta had risen by 141 per cent in her local supermarket, while there had been a 45 per cent hike in the price of baked beans.

“When I started writing my recipe blog ten years ago, I could feed myself and my son on £10 a week,” she tweeted. “The system by which we measure the impact of inflation is fundamentally flawed – it completely ignores the reality and the REAL price rises for people on minimum wages, zero hour contracts, food bank clients, and millions more.”

Hopper says Scotland’s Good Food Nation status should be built on good-quality, locally produced ingredients.

“That’s includes vegetables, fish and sustainably produced meat,” she says. “It should be locally produced, locally supplied, with the shortest possible supply chains.

“A lot of highly processed foods require significant additives to make them nutritious. That processing has a huge impact on the climate – not just when you’re importing it from abroad. What we’d like to see is the increase of supply chains within Scotland…”

While some environmentalists have taken a hard line on future oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, effectively calling for the industry to be wound down, there appears to be more pragmatism about the future of Scottish agriculture, an industry which supports 65,000 jobs and generates around £3bn a year for the economy.

There is also an understanding that while livestock cultivation is a major source of emissions worldwide, the race to find plant-based alternatives must be done sustainably. Among the commitments delivered at COP26 was a pledge to end deforestation by 2030, often done to create more grazing land for cattle or for the production of products such as palm oil, which has further endangered animals such as the orangutan and the Sumatran rhino.

“It’s clear that our diets are already changing as a direct result of climate change and because of increased awareness of how it impacts emissions,” says Scottish Greens rural affairs spokesperson Ariane Burgess.

“The Committee on Climate Change and others have been clear we need to continue to adapt to the circumstances.

“But that needn’t be about forcing people en masse to change their diet or cut out meat entirely. NFU Scotland is right that sourcing things locally and responsibly is the future. Large-scale industrial techniques will be increasingly unsustainable as we adapt to increasing extreme weather events and ensure vital habitats and soil diversity is protected.

“And as production costs rise, we need to ensure that everyone has access to healthy food that don’t cost the planet.”  

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