The upcoming WWF report goes far further than Paul McCartney's Meat-Free Mondays, calling for a revolution in consumption. Michael Barker reports

It would be easy to dismiss Sir Paul McCartney's Meat Free Monday campaign as a gimmick, a headline-grabbing fad supported by celebrity hangers-on with little concept of real-world affairs. But proof the underlying message has gained wider support comes with the imminent release of an 84-page WWF report outlining strategies for reducing red meat and dairy consumption in the UK to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
A pioneering concept it may be, but asking the food and drink industry to encourage consumers to eat less is likely to prove a hard sell.

The WWF insists it is not telling people to stop eating red meat and dairy, but merely to eat recommended portions according to the FSA's Eatwell Plate. "We've looked at what people are eating, and at a population level we are overconsuming red meat by 70% and dairy by 40%," says report co-author Charlotte Lee-Woolf. 

Consumption changes could involve switching from red meat to poultry, or moving towards soya, rice and other types of milk, she says. With five-a-day fruit and veg consumption still well belowrecommended levels, an increase in vegetable consumption at the expense of meat and dairy would also benefit the nation's health, the report argues.

While campaigns such as McCartney's have tried to promote a straightforward and manageable approach, the WWF has taken a deeper, 'holistic' line, highlighting areas where supermarkets can lead the way in reducing consumption. 

Retailers have a critical role to play in creating portion awareness and labelling for red meat, dairy and their direct substitutes, it says. Specifically, they should look to reformulate composite meals to align the level of meat or cheese ingredients to FSA portion guidelines. Dairy products should have front-of-pack labelling stating '1 of 3 a day max', while meat should say '1 of 3 a week max'.

Retailers also need to drive further greenhouse gas reduction in the supply chain, promote vegetable-based meals, set higher sustainability targets and educate shoppers in how to create meals that do not feature red meat or dairy, it says.

But wouldn't reducing consumption hit sales? Not necessarily, says the WWF, as volume can be switched to alternatives with higher premiums. "There's an opportunity to provide new sources of food where there is a revenue stream and supermarkets have a part to play in making that easier for consumers," says Woolf. 

Alternative proteins
Creating viable large-scale alternatives, such as new proteins and milk substitutes, is fundamental. This would involve finding new suppliers for these categories, as well as dedicating more space to them in store.
Unsurprisingly, the food industry is not entirely sold on the WWF's vision.

"It's totally unrealistic to expect retailers to do something that would actually work in this area," says Clare Cheney, director general of the Provision Trade Federation. "Consumers themselves would have to have the incentive to eat less meat and dairy and there's no indication of that happening."

Besides, the UK cannot tackle this problem alone, she claims, and other countries are even less likely to adopt the approach. In this case, UK meat and dairy production would not be reduced, but increasingly exported, exacerbating the problem of climate damage.

"Synthetic" alternatives to meat and dairy will also have a negative impact on diet, Cheney says. "The more synthetic food becomes, the greater the potential for bad diets." 

And that's before factoring in the potential environmental considerations of developing these alternatives, she adds.

The dairy industry is not impressed by the report's proposals. It is a "dangerous principle that will alienate consumers and the food industry alike," says Dairy UK director general Jim Begg. 

"Dairy UK would be happy to work with WWF in a constructive fashion to tackle the environmental challenges that we all face," he says. "But the conclusion that dairy farmers should invest in slashing their output by 32% is not constructive, nor is the suggestion that dairy processors could simply switch to dairy substitutes."
Many initiatives are already in place that are reducing dairy's carbon footprint, he adds. The WWF's approach casts supermarkets into the role of agenda setters for the nation's health, a role that is unlikely to sit comfortably. From their interviews for the report, researchers admit supermarkets fear demonising individual categories. Retailers are also at pains to highlight the difficulties in conveying complex messages to consumers.

If retailers were to develop meat and dairy-free product lines then shoppers would need to be on board, says a spokesman for the British Retail Consortium. "This approach is very radical. Retailers know from experience that successful reformulation includes taking customers with you and making them want to buy the products. Otherwise you won't achieve anything at all. 

"Retailers do not want to be seen as responsible for the decimation of the UK meat and dairy industries, which would seem to be the logical outcome of the WWF's approach," he adds. "Retailers are big supporters of UK agriculture and will continue to be. We wouldn't back a policy aimed at killing off substantial parts of it."
Retailers are already collaborating with suppliers to reduce the carbon footprint of food retailing and production, he stresses.

The need for greater collaboration is one area where the two sides do agree. The head of WWF's One Planet Food programme, Mark Driscoll, insists collaboration right across the supply chain is key to achieving the targets. And that includes the government, which still has "quite a long way to go" in bringing clarity to what constitutes an environmentally friendly diet. "There needs to be a clear definition of what a sustainable diet is. Retailers will say that until the government defines what they mean, no individual retailer can address these kind of issues."

And therein lies the problem. For an initiative of this magnitude to succeed, someone would need to stick their head above the parapet and take a leap of faith. It would be hard to imagine a supermarket telling consumers to eat less of their favourite products during a recession and indeed at any other time. Certainly not without a clear directive from government and an even clearer vision of how they can retain their margins and not alienate customers.

The government needs to update FSA guidelines to include One Planet food concepts, according to the WWF, as well as help support the reform of greenhouse gas reduction in farming and revisit the issue of food taxation to incentivise the adoption of healthy and sustainable foods. Getting all parties on board with such an ambitious not to mention controversial plan may be beyond the capabilities of the most ardent celebrity supporter. Even a former Beatle.