Looking back over the last ten years, I’m heartened by how quickly many people’s attitudes and behaviours can change towards healthy and sustainable eating – and food businesses respond. And I’m dismayed by slowness of policy responses.
Ten years ago meat reduction was a niche interest. Vegetarians and vegans, typically motivated by their concern for animals, were of little interest to mainstream food companies. Now excluding animal products from diets is on trend, particularly with the younger generation, as celebrities and sports stars endorse a meat-free lifestyle. But what is also driving even greater change is the rise of the flexitarians, people who are cutting back on their meat eating without cutting it out completely, many of whom are also conscious consumers – choosing better quality for the meat they do eat.
The Eating Better alliance was launched four years ago to encourage and normalise this shift to healthier and more sustainable diets with less and better meat eating. So we were pleased to see that our new 2017 YouGov research finds 44% of people in Britain willing or already committed to cutting down on or cutting out meat eating. And it’s not just our research. Earlier this year, Kantar Worldpanel reported that 41% of the population are now flexitarian, meat-reducers or semi-vegetarians. And more than half of Brits (56%) think meat is not necessary to have a good meal.
What has helped drive this change is the growing awareness over the last ten years of the negative impacts of livestock production for the environment and climate change in particular. Back in 2007, just 14% of people agreed that consuming and producing meat has a significant negative impact on the environment compared to 31% in Eating Better’s latest 2017 survey. Awareness is greatest among young people aged 18-25 (46%) compared to 20% in the over 65 age range reflecting a generational shift.
It’s now clear that the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement commitments to keep global temperature rise within safe limits cannot be met without including dietary change as a priority solution. Even so, the environment remains a poorer personal motivator for change than concern for health. In recent years we’ve seen increasing evidence that predominantly plant-based diets with smaller quantities of livestock products have health benefits for addressing obesity, heart disease, cancers and diabetes as well as tackling the spiralling health care costs to society and our NHS.
What is helping drive change is the way that civil society organisations that are part of the Eating Better alliance are working together and reaching out to policy makers, food businesses, the media and all those who can make a difference to prioritising this dietary transition.
An increasing number of food businesses are starting to recognise the opportunities. Just three years ago when we launched our Eating Better business engagement, we were hard pressed to name a handful of companies that were already engaged. Now, in a new report, we are able to showcase over 20 food companies, including high street chains and supermarkets, that are leading the way to help people eat a greater variety of plant-based foods and less meat, and to support ‘better meat’ from farming that benefits the environment and animal welfare.
And there is more that companies can do to help people reduce their meat consumption. The public in our survey said top priorities are for restaurants and fast food chains to provide better choice of meat-free dishes or meals with less meat; for more price promotions for meat-free choices, more help with cooking vegetable-based dishes, more meat-free choices on school lunch menus and for supermarkets to provide more meat-free or lower meat ready meal choices.
But the elephant in the room over much of the last decade remains the lack of political will towards integrated sustainable food and farming, health and climate policies that recognise the importance of this dietary transition. The farming industry faces many challenges and is hamstrung by a Common Agricultural Policy regime stuck in the past. Now, as Brexit potentially provides new opportunities to make our food system fit for the future, shifting our livestock production and consumption onto a more healthful and sustainable pathway must be central to those discussions.
Sue Dibb is Coordinator of the Eating Better Alliance