Free digital copy
Get Speciality Food magazine delivered to your inbox FREEGet your free copy
According to the author of the National Food Strategy and government food tsar Henry Dimbleby, the only way to have sustainable land use in the UK and avoid ecological breakdown is to vastly reduce the consumption of meat and dairy.
But is all meat being painted with the same brush, and how can reducing unsustainable meat in favour of regenerative, high-quality animal products actually boost fine food retail?
Too much focus on meat
While Henry strongly argues that meat consumption should be reduced by at least 30% in the UK, according to the farming industry, animal agriculture is essential to a healthy ecosystem.
As Patrick Holden, CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust explained, “Of course, Henry Dimbleby is well-intentioned, but he doesn’t have the knowledge and experience that comes from practical farming.
“He is rightly looking for science to validate the arguments that organisations like the Sustainable Food Trust are advocating, namely that grazing animals can build soil carbon in significant volumes, but he is reluctant to trust the observations of farmers like myself who know from first-hand experience that regeneratively grazed cattle and sheep can play a significant role in drawing down carbon from the atmosphere, thus offsetting their methane emissions and at the same time providing us with nutritious food.”
He continued, “The debate about future sustainable diets has become unfortunately polarised around meat. In fact, all of us should be realigning our diets and moving towards sustainable choices, in terms of the consumption of both plants and animals.
“We need to know the difference between the unsustainable meats which we need to eat less of, or give up altogether (intensive poultry, pork and products from mega-dairies), and those we can eat with a clear conscience (grass-fed and mainly grass-fed beef, lamb and dairy, and free-range and organic chicken and pork), knowing that we are supporting the sustainable farming transition.
“If we were to do this, it would mean eating less meat overall, because producing meat in high-welfare, nature-friendly ways is less productive than intensive systems.”
This is something the Soil Association agrees with, as policy officer for healthy and sustainable diets, Laura Chan, told Speciality Food, “The Soil Association advocates a wide-scale transition to nature-friendly farming practices, such as agroecology and a corresponding shift to healthier and more sustainable diets to address the climate, nature and health crises.
“In summary, this adds up to a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, pulses and legumes and high-quality meat farmed in a way that supports nature, such as organic and pasture-fed livestock.”
The problem of imports
Experts say that the sustainability issue with meat consumption is not the product itself but the scale it is produced.
Laura explained, “Current levels of meat consumption and the increasing prevalence of intensive animal farming in the UK are simply not sustainable. We are calling for less and better meat to manage consumption to address many of the failings in our current food and farming system while building resilience.
“In particular, we must look to reduce our reliance on imports – particularly animal feed such as soya which is responsible for a devastating impact on the wildlife, biodiversity and indigenous communities in South America where the majority of this soya comes from.
“A sustainable diet for the UK does include meat but would see a reduction in the quantity of meat, particularly of low-quality meat. There needs to be a significant reduction in the volume of poultry and pork, a sector which has grown rapidly in the last thirty years but has required incredible volumes of imported animal feed.”
In this way, indie retailers who focus on British grass-fed meat and dairy products are well-placed to benefit from increased interest in sustainable diets.
How indie retailers can play a part
Naturally, fine food retail champions locally produced products by working with trusted suppliers with short chains, which in turn leads to a ‘less but better’ approach.
As Laura explained, “The independent food sector already champions many of the healthier choices that we need to make and retailers should encourage the uptake of less and better-quality meat while celebrating the diversity of produce and foods that we can grow here in the UK and which have a less destructive impact on the planet. This will include an emphasis on seasonal and local fresh foods.”
Patrick concluded, “Ideally retailers should explain to their customers what a sustainable diet looks like and encourage them to buy foods produced by farmers in their region, from sustainable production systems. If they do that, they will be ahead of their supermarket rivals - who have been slow to catch on to this new thinking.”