Sue Dibb: Meat is feeding our appetite for self-destruction

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FOR folk who have grown up with easy, abundant access to meat, the thought of meat rationing may sound like a ludicrous notion, but is it really that far-fetched? The simple answer is no. While we’re not there yet, it’s becoming increasingly clear that public attitudes towards meat need to change if we’re to avoid such a drastic outcome.

First, there’s the unsustainable demand for meat. By 2050, the world’s population is set to increase to over nine billion people and in order to feed this larger and more aspirational population, food production will need to rise by 70 per cent if we carry on as we are. This would mean an increase in cereal cultivation of over one billion tonnes and an increase in meat production of over 200 million tonnes. This will put a massive strain on the land used for livestock and for growing animal feed – and at present we are running out of land and destroying vital forests.

If you want to see evidence that the meat industry is struggling to keep up with demand, you don’t have to look any further than recent scandals, including the horsemeat scandal which saw thousands of supermarkets recall their ‘beef’ products amid the largest food fraud in decades. And there’s little sign that things have drastically improved since then, with the recent research finding that most supermarket chicken is still contaminated with the food poisoning bug, campylobacter. Hardly a confidence builder.

Then there’s the environmental damage that’s being caused by the over-consumption of meat. Scientific research has found that agriculture and food production now represents up to 29 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock contributions accounting for around 15 per cent.

And while the land available for food production may be shrinking, our waistlines are certainly not. University College London recently revealed that one fifth of children starting primary school are now overweight or obese. According to a Carbon Trust report, it is this generation’s responsibility to promote healthier and more sustainable eating habits through reducing the areas we currently overconsume – including protein – and this can only be done if we lead by example.

Clearly, our relationship with meat needs to change. It is not about cutting out meat entirely, but a serious attitude shift to address issues around health, sustainability and the environment. We can all do this by eating less meat – and choosing “better” meat – produced to higher animal welfare and environmental standards. In this way we can support farmers too.

But this cultural shift is not without its challenges. Many people in Britain are currently adopting a caveman mentality with the likes of the Paleo diet becoming popular in recent years. A YouGov survey found that 48 per cent of people felt a meat-free diet was a healthier option, which signals that mentality could shift in the future, but this isn’t happening anywhere near quickly enough.

Awareness is a key factor to accelerate a shift in attitudes towards healthy, sustainable meat consumption, and events such as the World Meat Free Day, which too place on Monday, are a way to do this; not just warning about the dangers of meat overconsumption, but equally about disrupting habitual views and raising awareness of alternatives.

Narrow product ranges used to be a problem, but not anymore; meat-free ranges are ever expanding to incorporate cuisines and tastes from all over the world. The wide range of meat alternatives on offer, such as soy and Quorn, mean that we don’t have to miss out on our favourite meals just because they don’t contain meat. The category is also becoming easier to shop too. No longer is it hidden away, and instead retailers are waking up to an increasing consumer demand for such products.

No longer is taste compromised with meat-free food and with the likes of Jamie Oliver releasing a vegetarian cookbook, no one can complain that there aren’t any tasty alternative recipes out there.

Cutting down on meat consumption also makes sense from a financial point of view too. It’s a given that plant based diets are cheaper.

Eating Better Alliance is one of the many organisations calling on the influencers at the G20 summit in November to make meat top of the climate change agenda. As an alliance, we are encouraging changes in the attitudes of businesses, governments and the public, but we cannot do this alone.

Behaviour change is the biggest hurdle we still face every day. Every individual has the power to make change.

So why not get involved? Eating less meat will broaden your dietary horizons, save your wallet, help your health and the health of the world you live in. Surely that’s food for thought.

Sue Dibb is co-ordinator of the Eating Better Alliance. She spoke at the York Festival of Ideas this week.