We at Feedback are disappointed by the government’s dodging of responsibility on action on diets in the National Food Strategy policy paper.
Failure to achieve a dietary shift will rule out meeting the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting warming to 1.5°C above industrial levels. As set out in the National Food Strategy and by the Committee on Climate Change, the UK must reduce meat consumption significantly by 2030, and beyond. The government ignores all these recommendations and plans to placate the concerned public and civil society groups by supporting alternative proteins instead. This is not a proven pathway to meat reduction and by masquerading as meaningful action it sends the dangerous message that climate mitigation has been dealt with.
In its food strategy policy paper, the government announced that it would be supporting the development of alternative proteins through research and innovation.
Feedback commissioned Oxford University’s Brian Cook to research the environmental, health and food sovereignty impact of alternative proteins. The forthcoming report concludes that while plant-based alternative proteins do offer huge environmental benefits compared with their meat counterparts and may help normalise plant based eating, they come with a potential nutritional cost and may entrench existing food system power structures. Most concerning is the lack of evidence that increased sales of alternative proteins leads to reduced meat consumption.
On the nutritional side, alternative proteins are ultra-processed and modelling of increased consumption shows increased sugar, sodium and carbohydrate intake. We still do not know the full impact of consuming highly processed food. A plant-based diet based on whole foods remains the healthiest option and while the government’s policy paper noted that British-grown pulses were sustainable and healthy, the paper did not mention any support for growers.
A second finding in Cook’s report was that alternative proteins are still largely owned by the big processed food or meat giants and do not contribute to shifting the current power structure in the food system.
On the environmental side, it’s not clear if the government’s investment help may be directed towards cultured meat, the GHG emissions of which are still unknown. The cultured meat that might receive some of the government’s funding pot faces real long-term scalability and affordability questions.
Perhaps the most shocking finding about the sector is that there is no evidence that increased sales of alternative proteins means reductions in meat or dairy. In the government’s policy paper, they state the alternative protein sector will complement traditional livestock sectors and that sustainable protein does not need to displace traditional sectors. If alternative proteins are not going to help us reduce the emissions and biodiversity burden of meat and dairy then they can only be a red herring, distracting us from the need for more impactful measures including a meat reduction target.
Science isn’t telling us we need more choice, it is telling us we need less meat. Alternative proteins are not currently a proven pathway to meat reduction; evidence that they reduce meat sales is poor. A meat reduction target by supermarkets in line with Eating Better’s Target of 50% can help us get to a healthier and more sustainable way of eating. It’s incumbent on supermarkets to reduce meat and dairy: after all, with nearly all UK adults doing their groceries shop at large retailers, they are the ones shaping what we eat.
Not only that, reducing meat and dairy sales will be necessary, if supermarkets are to meet the new Courtauld Commitment many have signed up to, to halve the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food and drink consumed in the UK by the end of the decade.