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  1. Environment
18 January 2023

New Year promises won’t resolve our meat problem

Just under a third of Brits say they are going reducetarian this year, but we need more to meet climate goals.

By India Bourke

This may be, by the Chinese calendar, the Year of the Rabbit, a common dish in some nations, but 32 per cent of Britons hope to eat less meat altogether over the next 12 months, exclusive polling for the New Statesman by Redfield & Wilton Strategies reveals.

When asked whether they would be eating more or less meat this year, 22 per cent of British adults answered “less” and a further 10 per cent “much less”. This was more than three times the proportion who responded that they intended to eat “more” or “much more” meat.

That a third of Britons are hoping to cut the amount of meat in their diets is good news for the nation’s carbon budget. In a progress report published in December 2022, the Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government, specifically called for high-carbon meat and dairy consumption to be reduced by a fifth in the next decade, then by 35 per cent by 2050, if the country’s net-zero targets are to be met.

A third may, however, not be enough. The above recommendations suggest a need for universal reduction (or a complete renunciation of meat by many more than currently identify as vegan). “The climate clock is ticking,” Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, an NGO, said. “And the British diet remains bloated on ultra-processed products and industrially-farmed meat. 2023 needs to be the year we turn this around.”

Worryingly, there is also evidence to suggest enthusiasm for reducing meat consumption is stalling. Polling for the New Statesman in late 2021 found that 34 per cent of those surveyed who had made a diet-related New Year’s resolution for 2022 had chosen to eat less meat. When a similar question was posed in this month’s polling, that had fallen to just 17 per cent.

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[See also: New Year’s reducetarians? A third of people intend to change their diets in 2022]

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One way to increase the percentage of those opting to cut back on meat would be greater government intervention in shaping dietary choices. In his 2021 independent National Food Strategy report, the government’s “food tsar” Henry Dimbleby recommended setting a target for supermarkets and food chains to sell 10 per cent less meat by 2030 – yet the government’s resulting national food plan omitted all suggestions of meat reduction.

“It seems that our current government is too nervous to address diets, or is perhaps burdened by an ideological opposition to intervening in the market,” said Percival. Moreover, the only directly relevant suggestion made in a review of the net-zero strategy published this week by Chris Skidmore, the Conservative MP, was that “there is potential for lab-grown alternatives”, which the Soil Association argues “cannot form the solution for sustainable and healthy diets” considering research around the harm ultra-processed foods pose to gut health.

When this year’s New Statesman polling asked if the government should “recommend people to eat less meat”, over two-thirds (67 per cent) seemed to echo ministers’ thinking and said it should not. But there are alternative, less direct, means by which the government could influence diets, such as ensuring the £2bn of public money spent on food each year in public settings such as schools and hospitals goes on healthy and sustainable plant-based meals.

Change needs to be comprehensive and fast. With more livestock on the planet than wild animals, and animal agriculture responsible for almost two-thirds of the food system’s greenhouse gas emissions, system-wide reform is needed to reverse the damaging trends. “We need to transform the entire system – from what we grow, how we grow it and where we grow it, to what we consume and how much of it we consume,” said Helen Harwatt of Chatham House. “[We need to go] way beyond the scope of technological fixes.”

Redfield & Wilton Strategies polled a weighted sample of 1,500 eligible voters in Great Britain on 11 January 2023 for the New Statesman.

[See also: “Nothing green” about soaring waste incineration, says former Defra chief scientist]