Food Strategy ignores plant-based transition

Huddersfield Green Party member Nick Bowett provides an analysis of the Government’s Food Strategy – some areas of promise, but ultimately ‘unambitious'.

Nick Bowett

From farmland to fork, the global food system is responsible for about 30 per cent of greenhouse emissions, so improving our food system is a key way to combat climate change. Less meat should be produced and consumed to address climate, human health and environmental issues. 

The informative Dimbleby report is clear on the need for people to consume far less meat for these reasons. In the same way, the Climate Change Committee has been clear that less meat needs to be produced and consumed to cut down on emissions in order to reach net-zero by 2050. However, the Government’s Food Strategy, which is the first in 75 years, failed to relay the message.

The Food Strategy covers many aspects of food and farming, seeking to improve these sectors at a national and global level. It should have detailed plans to promote the production and consumption of plant-based diets, or at least far less meat, for health and environmental reasons. 

Some promising plans, but the Government falls short of real change

The Land strategies referred to in the Food Strategy can only materialise, with gusto, if there are ambitious plans to free up more land by promoting diets which contain less meat. Unfortunately, the progressive Animal (Sentience) Welfare Act 2022 wasn’t mentioned, which should have steered the strategy in a more positive direction. On the plus side, measures to increase the transparency of UK supply chains were proposed in the strategy, which will make the ethical dietary transition more rewarding to those who are concerned about environmental and animal welfare issues.  

For every 100 calories fed to livestock, only approximately 12 calories reach humans through the consumption of meat and dairy, so, clearly, eating crops directly makes more efficient use of arable land. If overseas land used to produce food for the UK is included we find that: 15 per cent of agricultural land is used to grow crops for direct human consumption, 22 per cent is used to grow crops to feed animals, and 63 per cent is made up of grasslands for roaming animals. Livestock gives out vast quantities of methane and nitrous oxide, which are both potent greenhouse gasses, and farmland with livestock fails to absorb much carbon, unless it contains trees.  

Within the Government’s Food Strategy there are some more promising plans to encourage farmers to plant woodlands, restore peatlands, protect land and counter biodiversity loss. However, it is difficult to make these land use ambitions come to pass, at scale, if there is no aim to encourage farmers to produce more crops for direct human consumption and, likewise, no aim to persuade the public to consume less meat, so that land is freed up. Encouraging farmers to manage the land so that it stores more carbon is important for global food security largely because global warming reduces harvests, hence increasing famine events, mostly in Africa and Asia. 

Eating less meat – identity, animal welfare, and health

Asking people to eat less meat is an emotive issue which could cause upset, especially if framed in an inconsiderate way, because what we eat is closely tied to our identities, but the Government’s Food Strategy should have had the courage to stand up for the long-term interests of its citizens who tend to want health, climate stability and a nature-rich environment. The Government should have committed to making it so far less meat is used in all public sector meals and set out plans to encourage retailers to focus on promoting more plant-based products, perhaps through tax breaks. It is noteworthy that numerous studies have shown that plant-based diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, are better for our health. In other words, vegetarians or those who eat meat on occasion, as part of a balanced diet, tend to be healthier.   

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 puts into law the requirement to ensure all policy decisions are made in the light of the fact that animals are sentient beings with the ability to experience joy, pain, and so on, but unfortunately, there is no reference to this in the Food Strategy. In order to act in accordance with this Act, there surely needs to be a shift towards much more free-range settings for livestock, such as silvopasture, and much more organic farming. A decline in meat consumption would enable fewer animals to be kept in far better conditions because more land would be freed up. Getting the basics of animal welfare right is often important to people, regardless of the dietary choices they make, and treating animals better correlates with better human health.

The benefits of organic farming

Organic farming involves using crop rotation, cover crops, manure to increase soil fertility, biological controls to control crop pests and, often, herbivores to clear arable land before sowing new crops. Synthetic pesticides cause huge, untold damage to the animal kingdom, so a pledge to endorse widespread organic farming should have been in the Government’s Food Strategy. In fact, bird, insect and plant life is up to 50 per cent more plentiful on organic farms. Organic produce is healthier because it contains no synthetic pesticide residues (unless there is contamination), which can potentially cause cancer and other serious conditions.  

Silvopasture entails keeping livestock among trees. As a comparatively great strategy for animal welfare, it should have been mentioned explicitly in the Food Strategy – it enables carbon to be sequestered and biodiversity to thrive. This type of farming enables farm animals to find shade in the summer, to find protection from storms in the winter and provides a more interesting environment for intelligent beings whose aptitudes are still not properly appreciated or understood. Livestock that is kept in silvopasture or on pasture gives rise to higher quality, healthier, meat than livestock that is reared intensively.  

At present, about 48 per cent of our food comes from overseas. Growing more of our food, by producing more crops that are fed directly to humans, will enable us to focus on buying foods from abroad which support foreign ecosystems, rather than degrade them. The Food Strategy aims to create a less opaque food system through the launch of the Food Data Transparency Partnership. ‘Mandatory public reporting’ on key aspects of food items is going to be consulted on, which is a positive step forward.

Transparency is important because it gives conscientious buyers who want to do the right thing and buy products which were produced in accordance with their values the reassurance that they are buying wisely. For example, those who are moving to a plant-based diet, because they abhor deforestation, want to know they aren’t buying goods that were produced on recently deforested land. Similarly, those who eat meat, but oppose deforestation, should be able to know that the meat they buy wasn’t produced on recently deforested land and/or wasn’t fed on any crops derived from recently deforested land. 

Rays of light, but ultimately, ‘unambitious’

In summary, the Food Strategy fails to endorse the important advised shift to less meat consumption which is necessary for climate and health. We know how to use land in a far more educated, compassionate way, but the strategy sets out an unambitious program. Transparency can inform, hence empower, consumers who want to buy in an environmentally friendly way or in accordance with other values, so there is a definite ray of light there. When the advantages of freeing up land, and rearing free-range livestock, are widely understood and appreciated keen meat eaters may come to agree with those of us who seek to pave a positive, non-judgemental, way forward for everyone.