It is difficult territory for politicians, who are reluctant to be seen to be telling people what they should and should not eat. This is particularly true when it comes to reducing our meat consumption. Indeed, Henry Dimbleby, the UK Government-appointed food tsar, ruled out a recommendation for a meat tax from his National Food Strategy because he thought it would be “politically impossible” to implement.
Yet we do need to talk about dietary change. The Scottish Government has a legally binding target to reach net-zero emissions by 2045, while equally ambitious nature restoration targets are due to be enshrined in law next year. The UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) – an independent, statutory body that advises the UK and Scottish governments – has made very clear that part of the solution is to eat less meat.
CCC chief executive Chris Stark recently took questions from MSPs on Holyrood’s rural affairs and islands committee on future agricultural support and progress towards climate targets, including an interim 31 per cent reduction in emissions from agriculture by 2032. In a follow-up letter, Mr Stark outlined some of the measures that should be incentivised, such as low-carbon farming, agroforestry and peatland restoration.
But perhaps the most striking element of the submission was around dietary change – and the resulting cuts in the number of farmed animals. The CCC modelling recommends we reduce our meat consumption by 20 per cent by 2030 and 35 per cent by 2050. Mr Stark said that means livestock numbers must come down – and the CCC model has assumed reductions in Scottish dairy cattle of 29 per cent, beef (26 per cent) and sheep (26 per cent) by 2045.
Crucially, the CCC says those changes must happen without increasing exports, and without an increase in imported meat, which would simply offshore the impact of our own consumption. It is easy to see why this is so challenging for political leaders.
First of all, the farming industry argues that swingeing cuts to the number of livestock risks leaving parts of the supply chain unviable. Beyond that, the public debate around meat has become increasingly polarised. The recent media coverage of Edinburgh City Council’s decision to endorse the Plant Based Treaty was a case in point. There have also been furores over attempts to ban meat from canteens in some of Scotland’s universities, including Edinburgh and Stirling.
This can all result in a cautious approach to policy-making. Since its publication, Mr Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy – which advocated for a 30 per cent reduction in meat consumption in the next decade – has been quietly shelved by the UK Government.
In Scotland, the SNP/Green government is due to introduce an Agriculture Bill in September, and a draft National Food Plan is expected this summer. These are clear opportunities, particularly through the food plan, to define what the Scottish Government believes constitutes a climate-friendly and sustainable diet.
So far, there has been little mention of the need for a dietary shift. The National Food Strategy provided some ideas as to how policy could help effect this change, for example by hiking taxes on unhealthy foods and subsidising the cost of fruit and vegetables.
However, government policy can only go so far. The question is, are we ready to change the way we eat? Research from the University of Aberdeen last year suggested that we are still eating more red meat than the level recommended by the World Health Organisation, but the National Diet and Nutrition Survey suggests overall UK meat consumption reduced between 2009 and 2019.
And there have been other signs that the public mood is shifting. The Scottish Climate Assembly, a representative group of 100 ordinary citizens, produced a report in 2021 that advocated a shift to more plant-based and low-carbon food in public settings.
The organisation that I work for, the Soil Association, has long advocated for a transition to nature-friendly farming methods like organic, alongside a shift to more healthy and sustainable diets. That means eating more vegetables, fruit and pulses and eating less but better meat – which we define as high-welfare, high-quality from systems like organic or Pasture for Life.
This is important in the Scottish context, where the vast majority of our farmland is only suitable for rearing livestock. Grazing ruminants play a vital role by converting something we can’t eat, grass, into something we can – beef and lamb. These animals also serve an ecological purpose, recycling nutrients, improving soil health and increasing biodiversity.
The Scottish Government is currently developing future policy for agriculture, juggling the need to reduce emissions and restore nature while continuing to support food production. That is no easy task, but there is a broader issue around the balance of what we produce, and what we eat.
Modelling by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission and French think tank IDDRI has set out a pathway to a future of agroecological, or nature-friendly, farming and land use. It suggests we can feed a growing UK population while significantly reducing emissions and eliminating deforestation from supply chains. It would, however, require us to eat differently.
The change they envisage includes a reduction in meat consumption but requires more substantial cuts in intensively reared, grain-fed chicken and pork, and relatively small changes to red meat consumption due to the beneficial role of grazing ruminants.
So there is a route to a more sustainable, climate-friendly food system in Scotland, but it very much includes ruminant livestock. And there is a need for us to adapt our diets in light of the climate and nature emergencies, but that doesn’t mean we have to cut out meat altogether.
David McKay is head of policy at Soil Association Scotland