In evidence given to the Environment Audit Committee on planetary health earlier this week, Government chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs chief scientific advisor professor Ian Boyd both promoted the virtues of a reduced meat diet.
In his evidence Professor Boyd praised the Eatwell Guide and the Eat Lancet reports which promoted a reduction in meat consumption in favour of a plant-based diet and suggested that it would be better for the environment.
He said: “Meat production does tend to produce greenhouse gases and has other significant effects on the environment through the release of nitrates, for example, and deforestation of tropical landscapes because of the need to grow cattle and that sort of thing.
“There are very good reasons for saying that if we all ate the Eatwell guide diet we would do a lot more good to the environment. The question is how do we get that diet to people and how do we make sure we are doing it in a way that is congruent with developing a good industrial process – a good economic process for the food industry.”
Meanwhile Vallance said: “The ability to reduce meat [consumption] and increase plant-based [food items] does entirely align with the environmental agenda and is one that I think is the right direction to push in.”
In response, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association Nick Allen expressed concern to Food Manufacture over the credence given to the reports mentioned.
“It is worrying that the Eat Lancet report and the Eatwell guidance are being given such credibility. Despite the modelling presented by the EAT Lancet Commission, no study has specifically assessed the environmental impact of diets based solely – or largely – on plant-based protein, as opposed to a mixed diet containing animal protein.”
Allen said that a reliance on a plant-based diet could lead to an increase of imported food.
“Meeting the nutritional needs of a growing UK population from plant-based proteins would likely rely much more heavily on imported food, which may be produced to lower environmental standards. It is a concern that recommendations like the Eatwell guidance will be taken at face value by people in the UK who may then drastically change their diet and, as a result, put their health at risk and potentially even worsen their personal carbon footprint.
“Production of food should be matched to where on the planet it is most sustainable. Red meat and dairy are produced very sustainably in the UK and should continue to form part of a healthy balanced diet for our growing population.”
Allen added that consumers shouldn’t rush to cut their meat intake.
“Red meat contains an efficient package of essential nutrients important for the body. For this reason Government guidelines suggest we should have 70g of red meat a day. Average population intake in the UK is currently below this figure. Any suggestion that we should further reduce our intake could have unintended detrimental consequences on health.
“With regards to the Eatwell guide, its most recent revision left many experts baffled about its recommendations. It is disappointing and worrying to see that it is being taken as a model for a sensible sustainable diet.”
Association of Independent Meat Suppliers chairman John Thorley added that the comments missed specific points about the environment.
"The comments about diet as a general rule ignore the fact that an extremely important aspect is associated with what can be produced in a particular area.
“The sheer number of people in our growing population will itself produce a curb on the amount of meat we eat and it would be far more sensible for the powers that be to concentrate on the production of far more accurate scientific information on the source of greenhouse gas production."
He added that the UK countryside doesn’t lend itself to agriculture that supports a plant-based diet.
“The consequence of having a developed economy which utilises hill, upland and other areas of land which do not lend themselves to large scale plant growing is that there is a tendency for the farms to be smaller than the large scale plant growing farms, due to the need to maintain the stock under conditions of high welfare and in good health.
“Profitability of these farms, or rather lack of it, is dictated largely by the downward pressure on prices placed on producers by the main conduit to the consumer, the supermarket chains but their reason for being is the fact that for centuries they’ve been an integral part of ensuring that people were fed diets which were adequate for the times.”