“Can alternative proteins save us?” asks the government’s former food tsar, Henry Dimbleby, in his recent book, Ravenous: How to Get Ourselves and Our Planet into Shape. The answer, he writes in a chapter entitled “Goujons of hope”, is a resounding “yes”. To reduce the world’s over-reliance on meat and dairy we need to embrace fake alternatives. This week, the co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain restated his support for the controversial processed foods in front of the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee.
Improving nutrition for those living in poverty is a huge concern, he acknowledged on Wednesday (19 April), but the need to tackle food production’s climate footprint is an even bigger challenge. “I’m worried about two things: what is going on for those living in poverty. And I’m worried about the much bigger question of whether, as a nation, we can show the rest of the world that there is a way of producing food in an environmentally friendly way,” he told the committee. “Because 57 per cent of food we eat is processed, I think there is a huge potential for other alternative proteins to reduce the amount of meat we eat quite quickly, as soon as they get cheaper. It’s not going to make it much healthier but I think we have to use the fact we eat so much processed food to take pressure off the environment.”
The need for such a Faustian pact is due to the dire consequences of continuing with agricultural-production-as-normal. Each year, biodiversity collapse gets worse and vast amounts of greenhouse gases are released (at least a quarter of global emissions come from our food systems). If all the external costs to nature and health were built into the price of food then it would “probably be more than twice” its current price, Dimbleby estimated.
It is possible to free up more land for nature restoration and carbon sequestration if meat and dairy consumption declines, his independent review concluded in 2021. Yet the review also found that public opinion was deeply divided over the prospect of asking people to eat less meat. “On the health side, support for things like banning [junk food] advertising to children are completely overwhelming,” he told the committee; but on asking people to reduce their meat intake “there’s limited options for a government that wants to remain in power”.
The resulting compromise – more unhealthy food to protect wider planetary wellbeing – is somewhat surprising from a man who reportedly quit his role as food tsar over the government’s “insane” inaction on obesity. His book even acknowledges there’s a risk that the greater availability of processed meat alternatives could encourage existing vegetarians to make less healthy habits.
Yet it is clear the global food system is broken – it is less than a week since an explosion at an intensive dairy farm in Texas killed 18,000 cows. And while it is a cost-of-living disaster that Asda’s budget-line processed sausages have soared by more than 70 per cent, it is also a sign that the underlying system of intensive cheap-meat production cannot be sustained. Within this mess, processed meat alternatives may offer a nugget of hope.
[See also: The surprising delights of monotonous meals]