Less is better – responding to ‘Meat in a Net Zero World’

23rd Jul 20 by Jessica Sinclair Taylor

There's a meaty omission from an industry commitment to reduce meat waste.

At the end of June, WRAP – the UK’s waste and resources charity which coordinates industry commitments and action to reduce waste across different sectors – published a new vision from some of the biggest players in the UK meat industry. ‘Meat in a Net Zero World’ sets out a plan to make the UK meat industry a “world-leading example of efficient and sustainable meat production and supply” and focuses on four areas: meat waste in households, business-level meat waste in processing, retailer and hospitality, livestock feed, and productivity improvements in the supply chain.

The signatories, including major players like the big retailers, producers and processors such as Two Sisters, Moy Park and Avara Foods, and a smaller number of hospitality and foodservice businesses, commit to sustainably producing food, acknowledging the time is critical to face global heating and profligate resource use.

So far, so good. We can all agree that if we produce food, and especially meat products which are much more land, water and greenhouse gas intensive to produce than plant-based foods, we should then waste as little of them as possible. Wasting 380k tonnes of meat a year is no one’s idea of a good plan.

And yet, there’s something rather meaty missing from this document – something which, until acknowledged, will continue to scupper any industry efforts to become compatible with decarbonisation and protecting our planet. That something is a word you don’t often hear in corporate documents – less.

We need less meat. We need to waste less, of course, but we also need less overall – less meat production, less served in hospitality and foodservice, less meat on the shelves in supermarkets. And less in our fridges and on our plates at home. A good deal less, in fact – the Eating Better alliance has adopted a target of 50% meat reduction by 2030. Even as a body focused on resource use and waste, WRAP and the wider industry must acknowledge this central brick in the road forwards.

Reducing meat production and consumption are particularly urgent for the same reasons that making sure we waste less of the stuff is urgent – meat is a very resource-intensive way to produce food. It’s also inherently wasteful: we use land and resources like labour, capital and the capacity of ecosystems to absorb pollution, to produce feed to raise intensively farmed animals. It would be a better use of resources, in many cases, to produce food that can be eaten directly by people. Currently 36% of the world’s crops are used to feed livestock, and animal-based foods only deliver 12% of the world’s calories.

Growth-oriented businesses, unsurprisingly, have blinkers on when it comes to ‘less’, and it would surely be convenient if we could chart a path out of our current catastrophic climate trajectory purely through ‘efficiency savings’. But there’s no evidence to show this will be possible – a rather more radical response will be needed if the industry wants to meet its self-avowed goal to become ‘sustainable’.

Here are some other pieces of the agreement that worried us:

  1. The myth of sustainable soya

A big slice of the ‘sustainable meat’ debate comes down to what the animals are fed – but industrial livestock farming (as opposed to say, animal farming as part of small, mixed farming) is generally highly reliant on imported feeds such as wheat and soya – in the case of soya, often grown on land that should have been left as highly diverse, carbon-sucking rainforest or Cerrado (not to mention, land which belongs to indigenous peoples, not corporate land-grabbers). Industry likes to promote a view that it’s possible to grow soya sustainably, but there’s not much evidence that is the case – it’s a complicated tale, but see here for why. Short version: committing to only source soya that doesn’t add to deforestation may not be as meaningful as it sounds. A more real climate commitment would be to no soya-fed meat, full stop.

  1. Profligate consumers

As often when it comes to the corporate take on food waste, we have a vision here in which benevolent food businesses need to help profligate citizens to waste less of the meat they buy – primarily through techno-fixes like extensions to ‘use by’ date labels, or better packaging. Those things are important (indeed, we’ve argued that many date labels serve no purpose other than encouraging us to buy more than we need). But there’s another uncomfortable truth here that is being ignored: when people waste meat regularly it is because we are buying more than we need. About half of food waste in the home is reported as being due to not using food in time. The reason we buy too much? It could be to do with the very effective marketing and pricing model developed by retailers and corporate meat producers which frames meat, particularly chicken (the most wasted meat in households) as a cheap staple rather than a highly valuable resource. There are questions here about food prices (see, for example, the Sustainable Food Trust’s True Cost of Food research), but also about the way food is marketed to us.

  1. Efficient = better?

Efficiency sounds like a good thing, especially in the context of growing demand for food (a bigger and in some cases richer global population) and finite planetary boundaries. But as Tara Garnett, Elin Roos and Dave Little point out, efficiency is all relative – a highly efficient system may still be a very damaging one if production grows faster than efficiency improves, so an absolute limit needs to specified when we’re talking of keeping within finite natural boundaries (i.e. we only have so much land, or so much Greenhouse Gas emissions budget before we head towards dangerous warming). And the industrial livestock complex is predicted to eat up to 80% of the global emissions budget by 2050 if it continues along business as usual lines – efficiency gains will only do a small amount to mitigate what is ultimately a highly damaging and extractive industry. There’s a famous paradox to efficiency – the more efficiently you produce something, the more demand for that something increases. Garnett et al. give the example of chicken production in Sweden – emissions per kg of chicken fell by 22% between 1990 and 2005. But demand rose by 180% – so emissions still increased, by a whopping 150%. Read our report Big Livestock Versus the Planet for more on this.

  1. Voluntary inaction?

Feedback has always been dubious about the capacity of voluntary industry initiatives to get to where they’re going quickly enough. Even if we agree about the direction of travel (halving food waste by 2030), how fast we get there matters a lot – reducing emissions from the food industry is crucial to create space and time for other sectors to decarbonise. A highly comprehensive study of over 150 voluntary business environmental schemes found that the “majority of schemes set unambitious targets”, many missed these targets and many “were undermined by low rates of private sector participation”. They found no evidence that voluntary approaches can be an effective alternative to regulation. What voluntary agreements can do, however, is give governments some reassurance that where industry goes, they can follow. We’ve seen this with food waste and the UK government’s shift towards regulating for all large food businesses to report on how much they waste publicly. Even the now ex-CEO of Tesco, Dave Lewis, no doubt exasperated after years of Tesco leading the way on food waste transparency, last year called for regulation to bring their recalcitrant competitors into line.

None of this denigrates the overall goal to reduce meat waste – this is vital – nor WRAP’s sterling work bringing together companies from across the supply chain (albeit lacking a strong showing from the food service sector). But we must acknowledge the bigger picture on runaway climate change and the role the meat industry is playing in fuelling this fire. What we’d like to see instead? Cross-industry commitments to halving meat and dairy production and consumption by 2030, on a path to a decarbonised food sector which relies on reductions in absolute emissions rather than dubious off-setting and carbon capture schemes. For more on how retailers can lead the way on reducing meat consumption, see our Meat Us Halfway supermarket scorecard.

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