Vote for veg! Our new government must take action to support plant-based diets

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Rob Percival – 02 April 2015

Veg MarketEach year, we Britons throw away 570,000 tonnes of fresh meat. This is the equivalent of 110 million animals. Most of these are chickens. 3 million are pigs, typically intensively reared to minimum welfare standards. Over 200,000 are cattle. Globally, each year, 12 billion animals are born to be binned, an extraordinary waste of life.i

These wasted lives may also be measured in wasted water, wasted land, and wasted crops: the resources used to nourish these animals that could instead have been used to feed people. Philip Lymbery, author of Farmageddon, has argued that if all the grain destined for industrially reared animals were planted in one field, it would cover the entire land surface of the European Union. If fed directly to people, it would sustain an extra 4 billion.

This legacy of waste extends as well to habitats and forests. Thousands of acres of rainforest are felled each year to be converted into cropland for animal feed, devastating vast areas of wildlife refuge and releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Animal agriculture is consequently responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than all transportation combined.ii

These are daunting statistics. But they are also statistics that we can influence directly – the politics of food is participatory: we vote three times a day, each time we pick up a fork.

And growing numbers of us are voting for veg, choosing to cut back our daily meat consumption. The Food People, a global trendspotting and ideas agency, report a “seismic” shift in attitudes in the UK towards “celebrating vegetables and opting to eat less meat.” They propose that ‘flexitarianism’, or ‘less but better’ meat eating, is soon to become a “mega trend.”

A recent YouGov survey seems to support their suggestion. The survey found that one in three Britons (35%) say they are willing to consider eating less meat, with one in five (20%) saying they’ve already cut back their consumption. Tellingly, concern for animal welfare was the top reason given, indicating that eating less meat and eating better meat are two sides of the same coin.

Eating better meat means choosing to eat pasture-fed animals that have been raised within a climate friendly farming system, such as organic. Organic farming systems have been shown to help to protect carbon-rich soils and wildlife, while providing for higher level of animal welfare.

If ‘less but better’ meat eating is on the rise – and the thousands participating in last week’s Meat Free Week would suggest so – then we are perhaps on our way to becoming a nation of conscientious carnivores. But is the shift seismic enough? And when will Government step up and support those looking to eat and farm more sustainably?

Whoever forms a Government next month must make a concerted effort to support plant-based diets and climate friendly farming:

  • This means committing to a joined-up food strategy, aimed at ensuring that a healthy and sustainable diet is accessible and affordable for everyone.
  • Clear guidelines on sustainable eating should be issued, promoting the benefits of eating less and better meat, and supporting businesses to provide more meat-free options.
  • British farmers who produce meat in ways that benefit the environment, health and animal welfare should be supported and encouraged, and provided with a fair return for their efforts.

The millions of wasted lives, the wasted crops, the wasted forests, collectively add up to the promise of a wasted planet. Our new government must take action to support sustainable diets: we need nothing less than a fully flexitarian future.

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