The paper said encouraging the consumption of “alternative proteins” that do not come from animals would be politically easier for ministers than taxing traditional products.
Raising cows, sheep and chickens contributes to carbon emissions, and to meet its climate targets, Britain will need to reduce meat consumption, the paper said. Alternative proteins have a significantly lower emissions impact, the report notes. The SMF said artificial meat could make it much easier for consumers to make that change, so ministers should significantly increase support for the fledgling industry.
The Government could recoup a wide array of benefits by supporting alternative proteins, including opening up a green export opportunity for British businesses, reducing the risk of zoonotic diseases and improving animal welfare, the report argues.
It points to government strategic and financial support for other markets associated with the Net Zero transition and said alternative proteins deserved similar attention.
The UK has committed £90m ($124m) to support new alternative protein research, but the SMF said the figure should rise. Otherwise, it argues, the country risks being left behind in a global race to develop alternatives. It notes Singapore last year became the first country to give approval for the sale of lab-grown chicken meat.
The report notes animal agriculture accounts for 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The official Committee on Climate Change has said the amount of meat eaten in the UK needs to be brought down by more than a third by 2050.
One study has suggested plant-based substitutes have a greenhouse gas emissions footprint up to 93% smaller than conventional meat production.
However, the report observes that, despite the growing popularity of diets and products designed to reduce how much meat is in the diet, meat consumption is not falling quickly. It said the UK today consumes only 6% less meat per capita in the home than in 1974.
The SMF said significant policy interventions will be needed to help consumers change their buying and eating habits more quickly. Political conversation has so far focused on the prospect of taxing people into reducing meat consumption, however, the Prime Minister has said he will not impose new meat taxes.
The report said, “The rapid expansion of the alternative protein market offers a way to reduce meat consumption through consumer choice.
“A thriving alternative protein sector is likely to be a condition for winning consent for any future interventions designed to reduce meat consumption. Without adequate alternative product offerings, the contested issue of a future ‘meat tax’ could be met with resentment.”
It said governments around the world are recognizing the need to incubate the alternative protein sector, given the high-risk, multi-disciplinary nature of R&D and the potential benefits to the public finances, economy, human health and the environment.
“The UK Government has already committed public funds and strategic support to a range of markets associated with the Net Zero transition, such as offshore wind and electric vehicles. Policymakers should consider applying the same logic to the alternative protein sector as a means of taking a non-intrusive first step towards reducing meat consumption in the UK.”
The paper’s author, Linus Pardoe, SMF research associate, said, “A greener world will mean eating less meat, but politicians cannot expect consumers to easily stomach a tax which raises the price of meat. Early skirmishes suggest a so-called ‘meat tax’ could descend into an unconstructive cultural debate.
“A better solution would be to help consumers transition to more sustainable dietary habits by expanding the range of alternative protein products on the market. We can only expect consumers to switch from eating meat if product offerings are high-quality, affordable and easily accessible.
“The Government can help deliver a thriving alternative protein market by providing funding for a new research cluster and strategic support for the industry. The global race for alternative proteins is on and the UK should be leading the charge.”
Good Food Institute comments
Elena Walden, policy manager at the Good Food Institute Europe, said, "The UK is the second-largest market for plant-based foods in Europe – but countries like Singapore and Israel are miles ahead in terms of actually developing a sustainable protein ecosystem.
"To capitalize on their potential to create thousands of jobs, and avoid simply importing the plant-based and cultivated meat consumers demand, the government must invest at least £125m ($173m) in homegrown research and development."
The Good Food Institute Europe is an international NGO helping build a more sustainable, secure and just food system. It works with scientists, businesses and policymakers to advance plant-based and cultivated meat, eggs, dairy and seafood to make them affordable and accessible across Europe.