With debate raging in the UK about a tax on sugary products, as well as charges already in place in some EU countries for plastic bags, it’s also the perfect time to test the water on a similar measure to reduce consumption of meat given the environmental and health benefits.
Indeed, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently added processed meats to its list of cancer-causing agents whilst a shift in consumption patterns to eat less meat for environmental reasons is firmly in the spotlight as the climate talks, COP21, kick off in Paris later this week.
Even some meat companies are spying a big market in meat alternatives, with German giant Rügenwalder Mühle hoping for almost a third of its sales to come from vegetarian options by 2019.
Public backlash = exaggerated claims
Livestock consumption accounts for a fifth of global emissions, but governments have long been reluctant to interfere in lifestyle choices for fear of public backlash.
However, these are exaggerated according to report author Laura Wellesley, a research associate at Chatham House, which carried out the research alongside Glasgow University Media Group. What’s more, only governments have the power to push such a major change in shopping behaviour.
Analysing the results of a public survey in 12 countries (France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Brazil, China, the UK and the US) along with focus groups in four countries, Wellesley and her team found that “even unpopular interventions to make meat more expensive, for example through a carbon tax, would face diminishing resistance as [people] come to understand the rationale behind intervention”.
The problem is not public acceptance of hard-line interventions to encourage a shift in purchasing behaviour towards lower-meat diets, rather the “low understanding” of why they are needed. A third of those surveyed for the research said deciding how much meat to eat was very important to them in the context of climate change, but this is low relative to comparable sources of emissions.
Drop the price of meat alternatives
Another less controversial fiscal measure would be to reduce the price of meat alternatives and plant-based products. The team found an imbalance in the relative costs of meat and dairy products compared to plant-based alternatives. This was not perceived to be the fault of the food industry, however.
Wellesley explained that if leading retailers and manufacturers could be “persuaded” to increase the range, quality and affordability of alternatives to meat and dairy products, they could “instigate an industry-wide sift in the right direction”. But this won’t happen without government intervention.
“The absence of a strong signal from government to promote low-meat diets discourages private investment in research and development for alternatives, and may be a disincentive to industry action to increase the range and share of plant-based options on offer.
“Despite this, efforts are under way to develop new plant-based meat alternatives and ‘lab grown’ meat, though these innovations remain some way from commercialisation. Policies to support R&D and help ‘pull’ promising technologies to market should be explored.”
Push or nudge?
‘Softer’ interventions are also considered in the research, with public acceptance – unsurprisingly – higher for policies that nudge purchasing behaviour. On-pack messages and labelling schemes to encourage shoppers to eat a more sustainable diet have left shoppers confused, the researchers noted.
A front-of-pack labelling scheme to convey recommended daily consumption levels of meat – such as those proposed by the World Health Organisation – could work, they said, provided it was “visual and hard-hitting”. An outright ban on advertising meat, however, would not.
“Simple messaging around the health implications of eating a more varied diet and/or reducing meat and dairy consumption will be important in achieving public buy-in to dietary change and to help counteract campaigns encouraging increased meat consumption.
Can food industry step in where COP21 cops out?
The research comes as diplomats from around the world gather in Paris to thrash out a post-2020 deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the contribution of livestock to global emissions, not one of the 160 countries has factored in reduced meat consumption as part of their reduction commitments.
The commitments made fall well short of the cuts required to keep temperature rises to two degrees, but dietary change could plug 25% of the gap, Wellesley said.