Encouraging UK consumers to swap red meat for plant-based alternatives for just one additional meal a week could slash the UK's emissions by more than eight per cent, a new analysis has found
UK greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by more than eight per cent if everyone in the UK swapped one red meat meal for a plant-based meal each week, a new analysis has found.
The switch would slash UK emissions by 50 million tonnes, the equivalent of taking 16 million cars off the road, according to a study commissioned by the Meatless Farm Co. and conducted by Oxford University climate change researcher Joseph Poore.
Poore compared the impact of red meat and plant-based meals across various areas, from production on the farm to energy use, transportation, packaging, food loss and waste. He also incorporated the carbon benefits from trees re-growing on land no longer needed to produce meat.
As well as deliver an estimated 8.4 per cent reduction in UK emissions, the results showed that the single-meal switch could result in a 23 per cent reduction in the UK's domestic and international farmland use totalling eight million hectares, and a two per cent reduction in the UK's water use - the equivalent of 55 fewer showers per person per year.
The study comes in the same week as the Committee on Climate Change's high profile report on the feasibility of building a net zero emission economy by 2050 recommended that the transition would likely require a 20 per cent reduction in beef, lamb, and dairy consumption, in addition to steps to eradicate food waste.
In light of the results, the Meatless Farm Co - a start-up launched in 2017 to develop high-protein plant-based mince and burgers - launched a campaign to encourage UK households to swap to eating one more plant-based meal per week by 2021.
"The real challenge is getting traditional meat eaters to adopt a more plant-based diet," said Rod Woodall, CEO of the Meatless Farm Co. "That's why The Meatless Consumption Target is so important - it's a powerful yet simple way of introducing more plant-based eating. It isn't about being strictly anti-meat either - we can drive real change by striking a good balance."
To coincide with the launch of its campaign, the Meatless Farm Co also commissioned research into consumer attitudes to meat-free eating. Conducted by One Poll, it found 53 per cent of respondents were likely to cook a meat-free meal at home, 41 per cent have eaten a meat-free meal in a pub or restaurant, and 42 per cent are likely to increase the amount of meat-free meals they eat in the next 12 months.
Just over half agreed that eating meat-free alternatives is good for the environment, while 74 per cent said restaurants, pubs and cafes should be doing more to be environmentally friendly.
"The challenge for plant-based food producers like ourselves is to create easy-to-use, plant-based foods for vegans, flexitarians and full-on carnivores which are environmentally friendly but also stack up on taste and texture," said Woodall, in response to the results. "We need all sections of the food industry to be pushing that message in order to achieve the sorts of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions scientists have highlighted are possible."
The company is part of a growing trend with a raft of start ups working to develop plant-based meat alternatives and retailers rapidly expanding their vegan and vegetarian ranges. In the past month Tesco has followed Greggs with the launch of vegan sausage roll, while Marks & Spencer sparked a modest media storm by making its Percy Pig sweets vegetarian. Despite criticism from some media commentators, companies are simply seeking to respond to growing consumer demand. For example, the global market for meat alternative products is expected to be worth £4.1bn by 2020.
The results of the latest analysis echo scientific consensus on the contribution of animal agriculture to climate change. Last year, the government's advisory CCC called for the number of sheep and cattle in the UK to be reduced by between a fifth and a half, arguing doing so would free up 3-7 million hectares of grassland that could support forests and biofuels which remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
A global analysis by researchers from the University of Oxford and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change similarly concluded beef consumption in developed countries needs to fall by 90 percent, replaced by a five-fold uptick in beans and pulses.
However, the farming industry has pushed back against the meat-free diet trend deploying a range of tactics to try and shore up demand for its products. Some industry groups have sought to use legal avenues in the US and EU to ensure meat alternative products can not use terms such as burgers and steak, which they insist should be reserved for meat products.
Meanwhile, the NFU has set a target to make UK farming net zero emission by 2040 and this week defended its practices, arguing emissions from UK livestock were much lower than the global average.
Responding to the CCC report this week, NFU deputy president Guy Smith said the UK "will not halt climate change by curbing British production and exporting it to countries which may not have the same environmental conscience, or ambition to reduce their climate impact".
"In Britain, 65 per cent of our farmland is best suited to grazing animals, so our ambition is that the climate impact of UK grazing is amongst the lowest in the world," he added. "Already, research from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation shows that beef production in Western Europe is 2.5 times more carbon-efficient than the global average. At the same time UK farmland conserves important carbon stocks in England's uplands. British farmers have an important role to play in tackling climate change and our members are committed to this challenge, alongside fulfilling their responsibility to the public in providing high quality, sustainable and affordable food."
It remains to be seen if such arguments will cut through with consumers who are increasingly embracing plant-based diets, especially as concern over the emissions impact of red meat continues to grow. It remains unlikely that the entire population will suddenly embrace vegan lifestyles, but switching one or two meals a week appears to be an increasingly tenable aspiration - and one that would deliver significant emissions savings.
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