Debate over the contribution of high meat and dairy consumption to environmental problems has been heated in the last year. Meat farming is thought to contribute to around 80 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to the food system, and red meat and dairy products are generally high in saturated fat, excessive intake of which is connected with cardiovascular disease risk.
Several lobby groups have called for measures to reduce the role of meat in the diet, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and a celebrity group started by Paul McCartney which encourages people to go meat-free one day a week.
The meat and dairy sectors have responded by drawing attention to their roadmaps to reduce carbon emissions from agriculture. Meat and dairy foods are also an important source of nutrition, and policy measures geared to reducing consumption need to take into account that there could be negative impacts on public health if some nutritionally insecure groups reduce their intake.
The UK’s chief medical office Liam Donaldson has given the matter attention in his annual report on the state of public health, as part of a wider section on climate change and health.
He recognised the efforts of the farming sector, but added: “We could also consider producing – and therefore eating – fewer animal products.”
It is not simply a matter of reducing animal products directly, but “their high levels of saturated fat finds its way into our diet in biscuits, cakes and pastries, as well as in meat”.
“Our diet is warming the planet. It is also damaging our health. Changing our diet is difficult, but doing so would both help slow climate change and bring significant health benefits. These are contentious matters but they need to be openly debated and options weighed up,” said Donaldson.