Germany’s environment minister has banned meat at official functions. Barbara Hendricks’ team referred to the policy as a “symbolic step” to show the department practised what it preached when it comes to tackling climate change. Colleagues in other departments accused her on nanny-statism and pushing a veggie day “through the back door”. Talk about hot potatoes (it is an election year in Germany).
But whilst the furore created by this schnitzel amnesty doesn’t surprise me, it has left me wondering whether it’s pointless pushing politicians to help nudge consumers towards more sustainable diets.
Consider this justification Hendricks’ staff issued as they attempted to dowse the flames: “Vegetarian food is more climate-friendly than meat and fish.”
It’s hardly the most controversial statement. Indeed, statistics relating to the environmental impact of livestock production have been piling up ever since the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s seminal report Livestock’s long shadow back in 2006, which warned that “the impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency”.
But take the widely-accepted statement (of fact) – that eating fewer livestock products is better for the planet, not to mention people’s health – and put it in a policy that reduces consumption and all hell breaks loose. It’s been that way for the past decade but will things change in the next 10 years?
The plight of Hendricks brought to mind other similar situations. The Danish Council of Ethics recently suggested food is “an obvious place to start” when it comes to tackling climate change as it outlined the merits of a carbon tax on meat. Politically, the idea went down like a lead balloon.
Further back, there was the case in the UK involving a health minister, the department for agriculture and a medical journal. Andy Burnham appeared at the launch of research published in The Lancet showing how a 30% reduction in livestock production would be necessary in order to meet the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions targets. Levels of heart disease could also fall.
“Although likely to yield benefits to health, such a strategy will probably encounter cultural, political, and commercial resistance, and face technical challenges,” the authors noted.
Little did they know it would erupt so quickly. Burnham, as well the equally enthused climate change secretary Ed Miliband, forgot to tell the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) about their plans. Officials at the department responsible for food and farming were less convinced by the paper’s proposals. As was the environment secretary of the opposition, who said "careless demands like this don't just undermine farming, they erode public support for action on climate change".
That was 2009, but we’re now in 2017. Attitudes are shifting – and relatively quickly. UK think-tank Chatham House for instance has claimed the public is not as opposed to a carbon tax as politicians might think. Research published just last week also showed that a number of European countries are providing “more explicit” guidance relating to the consumption of meat and dairy products.
Sweden explicitly links health and environmental issues to every food group, including highlighting which plant-based foods are preferable, noted experts at Medact and Eating Better in their briefing paper. In France, meanwhile, the dietary guidelines have been updated to include advice to eat less meat and more plant protein.
Others can follow these leads, they suggested, joining the dots between diets that are health for “people and the planet”. The UK government, for example, needs to go beyond its current focus on sugar, said Eating Better’s Sue Dibb.
But consider this: encouraging people to eat less meat and dairy could actually be easier than weaning them off the white stuff. More and more people are actively choosing to eat less meat. Kantar research in 2015 showed that 68% of UK consumers could be considered ‘flexitarians’ – that is, they were moderating their meat consumption. In Germany, plant-based meals are also “booming”, Mintel has noted, with one in three consumers actively reducing their consumption of red meat.
Manufacturers are tapping into this trend. Between 2011 and 2015 there was a 60% rise in the number of global food and drink launches with a vegetarian claim. Just recently ABP Food Group introduced a new range of sausages for the UK market that contain 40% beef and 40% vegetables and legumes. And who could forget the claims made by a director at German meat giant Rügenwalder Mühle, who was hopeful that a third of sales would come from vegetarian options by 2019. International catering firms (like Sodexo) and the big supermarkets (including Sainsbury’s) are also taking the trend very seriously indeed.
Many politicians aren’t – and more fools them. We just might be the first and last generation to eat meat every day, but look at the hot-headed comments made by Germany’s food minister and you’d think we are talking about global vegetarianism. “Instead of paternalism and ideology I stand for variety and freedom of choice,” said Christian Schmidt as he hit back at his colleague’s meat ban. Schmidt seems to have ignored two important facts.
First: diets have to change in order to have any chance of limiting global warming (consider the potential health benefits and it’s a win-win). Second (and perhaps more importantly): the vast majority of consumers (even when they understand the links between livestock production and climate change) still want to eat meat; it’s just that a growing share of those consumers want to eat a bit less of it (for environmental, health and/or ethical reasons). And that makes Barbara Hendricks’ stance a potential vote-winner, doesn’t it?
David Burrows is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to FoodNavigator.