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Eating better?

In recent months, the media have displayed a particular fascination for any new research emanating from the US and here’s just a few examples from our press cuttings files for 2014:

This year also saw publication of several reports, highlighting the role of meat production in causing climate change, accompanied by calls for significant reduction in meat consumption in the developed world. Here’s just a few examples:

  • June: US study – a report suggesting that giving up eating beef would have a greater benefit in reducing one’s carbon footprint than stopping driving cars
  • September: Cambridge University – a report highlighting the need to reduce meat consumption as improving production yields and reducing food waste would be insufficient to mitigate the effects of the anticipated increase in global meat consumption
  • December: Chatham House – a report highlighting a lack of awareness of livestock’s major contribution to climate change.

A number of the NGOs and campaigning groups have signed up to the ‘Eating better’ campaign, calling on a ‘fair’ ‘green’ and ‘healthy’ approach, moving towards a world ‘eating less meat and more food that’s better for us and the planet.’

The communication programme is supported by over 30 different NGOs and it recently published a research study suggesting that 30% of consumers were willing to eat less meat and 20% had already cut back.

We can expect the campaign message to be developed strongly during 2015. Although the ‘eat less, eat better’ message is far less strident than an ‘eat no meat’ narrative, it will nevertheless continue to present a major challenge to the livestock and meat industries.

There is already much talk about a new approach to meat eating, known as ‘flexitarianism’ and campaigns for more ‘meatless days’ and ‘Meat Free Mondays’ continue, aided and abetted by Paul McCartney and other celebs.

The meat industry must continue its efforts to put more rigour and context to what is often presented as an oversimplified message that eating less meat is good for both the environment and public health. It has been encouraging that the independent views expressed by members of the industry sponsored Meat Advisory Panel were given greater prominence during 2014.

In August, two hour-long documentaries in the BBC2 Horizon series – ‘The big health dilemma’ and ‘How to feed the planet’ – focused on the effects of red meat in the diet and its contribution to climate change. Although both programmes featured a strong line up of the meat industry’s critics, viewers also heard a wide range of alternative views including those of the Meat Advisory Panel. The programmes did highlight much of the complexity involved in these debates, as opposed to a simplistic message that we should all ‘eat less meat’.

We must also clarify exactly what is meant by ‘Eating Better’, as regards the type of meat concerned. For most of the campaigners, ‘Eating Better’ simply translates into eating meat produced from livestock raised in more extensive or organic production systems. This raises the point that these systems, while they usually demand lower resource inputs, are, in the majority of cases, less efficient and, therefore, have a more adverse impact on the overall environment.

The industry also needs to communicate all the significant steps which have already been taken to reduce the environmental impact of conventional livestock production. For example, Danish pig farmers can document that today they can produce a pork chop with half the environmental impact of an equivalent product in 1985. And there is much work in hand to achieve further reductions in future.

The meat industry must continue to highlight the valuable nutritional role which moderate meat consumption can play within in a healthy lifestyle. We certainly should not condone eating more or too much meat but we should also highlight the steps which low and non-meat consumers may need to take replace the valuable nutrients which meat provides.

Many dietary research studies, highlighted by the media during 2014, were presented as proving beyond all doubt that eating meat is detrimental to health. Had these been subjected to more rigorous challenge, it could be demonstrated that much of the data used was of limited or poor quality and failed to pay due regard to other lifestyle factors, such as lack of exercise, smoking and high levels of alcohol consumption.

The complexities of the ‘diet health’ debate were well illustrated in the continuing public discussion about the rising levels of obesity in the general population. The traditionally held view that fats, and saturated fat in particular, have been the main contributory factor to this development came under serious scrutiny during 2014 – as our colleagues in the sugar industry know only too well.