It’s not red meat that’s the number one “problem protein” in the British diet - it’s chicken.
That is the bold claim made by WWF this week, signalling a dramatic change in direction in its efforts to educate consumers about sustainable diets.
“Indirect emissions mean chicken is less sustainable”
The change in tack will no doubt come as a welcome surprise to the beef industry, which has long been painted as the villain in the green debate.
So why are campaigners suddenly concerned about chicken? And what should the poultry industry be doing to address their concerns?
According to Duncan Williamson, food policy manager at WWF UK, the issues with chicken in the UK diet are twofold.
First, there’s overconsumption. While most Brits stick to the recommended daily amount of red meat - 70g a day - they eat over twice the amount of total protein recommended by nutritionists, and the majority of this is chicken and pork.
“About 50% of the meat we eat in this country is chicken,” he says. “Look at any retail shelf and you will see that the vast majority of ready meals are chicken. Most people eat chicken every day.”
This overconsumption is compounded by the environmental impact of poultry, and the realities of red meat and white meat production in the UK, says Williamson. On paper, beef is responsible for higher direct greenhouse gas emissions than chicken - largely because of the methane released by animals. But the fact that most UK beef and lamb production is extensive (meaning it requires very little input other than grass and rainwater) means it nevertheless has less of an overall impact on the environment than chicken, which is typically intensively reared and relies on high inputs including soya imported from South America, which is associated with deforestation.
When you take the indirect emissions from feed and other inputs into account, intensively reared chicken is a less sustainable choice than UK-produced beef or lamb, argues Williamson.
“When we first learned about the impact of meat we only had carbon footprinting, and we only knew about direct emissions,” he says. “Now we have realised that beef raised on a feed lot in the USA is a problem, but the beef that farmers produce in the UK is fantastic, so let’s eat it. It comes from happy cows that are doing a service to the environment.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the British Poultry Council disagrees with this point of view, and points to a 2006 study by Cranfield University, which concluded poultrymeat reared by indoor farming is one of the most sustainable methods of meat production.
“It has the least environmental impact in terms of energy required, acidification potential, eutrophication potential, and greenhouse gas emissions than other major meat types according to recent data,” says BPC spokesman Chris Potter.
Chicken consumption across Europe per capita (2013)
But Williamson points out life cycle methodology has moved on since 2006. “The Cranfield report is on the whole good but it underestimates feed, environmental externalities - such as the loss of carbon due to deforestation - and impact on ecosystem services such as pollinators,” he says. “It also does not take into account total volumes grown and eaten.”
There is a need for a more nuanced argument on sustainable diets, which looks beyond direct impacts, he adds. “We need to look at different production methods, lifecycle analysis and total volume reared to get an accurate picture.”
WWF’s own campaigns will start reflecting this, and other UK environmental groups are getting on board with the fact that chicken and pork are worse offenders than beef, he says.
While chicken has traditionally been viewed as a more virtuous option than red meat from a nutritonal perspective, Williamson says there is growing consensus that industrially reared birds are hardly a healthy option when you take into account antibiotics and other inputs.
The UK beef industry is, of course, jubilant. “We welcome WWF’s acknowledgement that the extensive rearing system primarily seen in beef and sheep production in this country has a lower environmental impact than other systems, something that we have always maintained,” says Eblex sector director Nick Allen. “It’s also heartening that WWF have accepted the fact that our domestic consumption of red meat is in line with recommended levels.”
But Allen stresses the focus should not be on finger pointing but “on each sector taking responsibility to reduce their own environmental impact”.
In the meantime, the WWF is not recommending that people cut out any particular protein from their diet.
Instead, the charity wants to see everyone in the UK aligning their diets more closely with the government’s nutritional guidelines - eating more fruit and vegetables, more complex carbohydrates and less highly processed foods and meat. According to WWF’s Livewell Project, this alone would reduce the UK’s food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 25%.
Williamson says the industry will have a key role to play in educating consumers and reformulating products to start moving UK consumers away from a diet heavy in meat, and in particular, chicken. “Retailers need to start talking about sustainability and healthy eating together and stop avoiding the subject of meat,” he says. “Let’s be honest, meat is the single biggest cause of environmental degradation, bar none.”
How retailers will respond to that challenge remains to be seen. But if the message from WWF is anything to go by, the poultry sector can expect to be the focus of the debate more frequently than in the past.