Can a sustainable diet include meat?

20th Jul 21 by Krysia Woroniecka

We need to eat significantly less meat but is it necessary to cut out meat and animal products from our diets completely?

Last week’s National food Strategy correctly responded to the overwhelming weight of evidence when it called for a 30% cut in meat by 2032: we likely need to make a bigger dietary shift yet to reduce climate change. People are ready to cut down – both the English and Scottish climate assemblies saw assembly members from all walks of life voting for measures to reduce meat consumption. ‘Less meat’ doesn’t mean ‘no meat’ and for personal, social or cultural reasons, some people will still want to eat some meat.

Where this meat should come from and how it should be produced is a big question, especially in an era of trade deals and post-Brexit changes to agricultural payments in the UK. One answer comes in a new Feedback position paper, ‘Living Well on Leftovers’ which shows that we can produce about a third of our non-ruminant (pig and chicken) meat intake using only food waste as a feed. In doing so, we could significantly decrease the climate footprint of rearing these animals, which mainly comes from growing their feed. Indeed, scientific evidence shows that a diet that is plant-rich yet contains some animal products from animals fed exclusively on leftovers uses less land than a diet containing no animal products at all.

Eating meat and animal products contributes up to 60% of the greenhouse gas emissions from our food system – and with food production and consumption contributing a third of overall emissions, reaching safe emission limits without addressing animal source foods is impossible. The National Food Strategy said we need to eat 30% less meat, though we would need to eat even less than that if we want to make room for countries that currently hardly eat any meat at all to eat a bit more.

It’s not all about the climate; livestock use 70% of agricultural land; growing crops for animal feed requires millions of hectares of soya production, much of which comes from the Amazon region, which has now become a net-carbon producer. There are more livestock on the planet than humans, so that’s a lot of mouths to feed and a lot of feed crops. Reducing pressure on natural habitats requires smaller livestock numbers.

But is it necessary to cut out meat altogether? Of course, that’s a personal choice, but from a sustainability science perspective it is a nuanced question – Feedback’s definition of ‘better meat’ is currently meat from animals which are reared only on food waste and by-products and do not graze or eat crops from land that could be used to grow human-edible crops. In fact, eating some meat, fed exclusively on leftovers, maximises the nutritional output of our land (because there’s always some surplus in the system which if it isn’t fed to people or animals would go to waste). A diet with some meat also allows us to get some of the nutrients, like vitamin B12, that are more readily available from animal products (but which do not require us to keep eating the amount of meat that we currently do!).

Eating a high-veg diet that contains only products from animals fed on leftovers meets the four objectives of the National Food Strategy:

  1. High welfare, low-impact meat amongst a colourful veg-rich diet fulfils the first objective to escape the junk food cycle and protect the NHS.
  2. Government interventions that make this diet accessible and affordable for all will avoid a two-tier food system and meet objective number two: reduce diet-related inequality.
  3. The third objective, to make the best use of our land, actually requires us to consume the diet described in our paper- all other dietary scenarios have a higher land footprint, including a vegan diet.
  4. The fourth objective, create a long-term shift in our food culture; is about making sustainable diets the easiest to access and to produce; we can produce all our meat in the UK, rearing non-ruminants using only our own leftovers and with no need for imported soy or purpose grown feed crops.

To meet the pre-conditions for a low/better meat approach, we first need to lower our meat intake, then create a regulatory system that allows us to feed treated food waste to non-ruminants like pigs, chickens and salmon. This would mean creating the systems, resources and oversight bodies to ensure that food waste is processed safely – we’re not advocating a return to the low-oversight approach which led to the Food and Mouth outbreak in 2007. There are other important considerations – cost savings from using feed from leftover food shouldn’t lead to an increase in intensively farmed pigs and chickens. We have a proposal for how this approach could be trialled safely and fairly in our paper.

We know we urgently need to adjust our diets to include more veg and less meat in order to protect communities around the world that are vulnerable to dangerous climate change. But we don’t have to cut out meat altogether and can actually have a more nutritious diet that uses less land if we use food waste to feed non-ruminant livestock, instead of importing damaging soya and other crops from fragile habitats.

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