Adam Briggs: Eating less red meat—a win for health and a win for the planet

The benefits of reduced meat consumption would be twofold, says Adam Briggs

We have a new prime minister, a new cabinet, and a planet that’s burning. 

For all the current political distractions, the climate emergency is the one constant. It is the greatest threat to health and global stability and a major driver of migration, disease, and war.

What we eat is part of the problem, and it’s part of the solution.

The stats are stark: agriculture is responsible for up to 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions, 40% of global land use, and 70% of freshwater use. Around 90% of world fish stocks are either fully fished or overfished and conversion of wild habitats for food production is the leading global cause of species loss

This week’s IPCC report on climate change and land use confirms that without changing our dietary habits there is little hope of keeping global temperature increases to less than 2°C while feeding 10 billion people. Temperature rises of 2°C will lead to more frequent extreme weather, bleach 99% of coral reefs, and raise sea levels by nearly half a metre. Conservative estimates place the resulting human death toll at 250 000 per year from 2030 onwards.

And when it comes to agriculture there’s no escaping the fact that livestock productionin particular, ruminantsis the leading contributor. Around half of all UK food related greenhouse gas emissions are due to beef and dairy. For the same weight ruminant meat, such as beef and lamb, uses over five times the amount of land and produces around 10 times the greenhouse gas emissions of any other meat or veg. Producing a single kilo of beef requires more than 15 000 litres of water; a kilo of chicken or pulsesother major protein sourcesrequires closer to 4000. 

Changing our diets, as with many other climate mitigation strategies, is a win-win for both the planet and our health. It’s recommended that we need 50g of protein a dayaround 10% of caloriesyet, on average in the UK we eat that from red and processed meat alone (beef, lamb, and pork), with total protein contributing more like 20% of calories. 

Red and processed meat are both linked to poor health. Red meat is classified as a likely carcinogen and processed meat as a “group 1” carcinogen by the WHO (the same classification given to tobacco) due to their effects on colorectal cancer. Their consumption is related to higher overall mortality and together they are estimated to be associated with 2.4 million deaths per year worldwide by 2020. 

Studies of populations with different diets suggest that replacing animal protein with plant based protein results in lower rates of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and overall death rates. Indeed, a recent study simulating the health and environmental impacts of simply meeting global dietary guidelines (note, this still includes up to 43g of red meat) resulted in over five million fewer deaths per year and a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared with the status quo. Both the health and the environmental benefits were mainly driven by eating less beef and lamb.

The UK canand shouldlead the world in driving this change in dietary habits. The UK is already a global leader in the rhetoric of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but this isn’t yet reflected in national policy. Now legally committed to net zero emissions by 2050, the UK government has delivered just one of last year’s 25 recommendations from the UK Committee on Climate Change.

It’s difficult to change what people eat or how they behave, but we do know that some approaches work better than others. Price is consistently the leading factor that affects the food people buy, and what we currently pay for our food doesn’t cover the wider costs to society of its production and consumption—including their impact on emissions, biodiversity, and our health. 

Raising the prices of tobacco, alcohol, and, more recently, soft drinks have all demonstrated falls in purchases. We should also raise the price of red and processed meat. 

One way to do this would be to make red and processed meat subject to VAT (currently meat bought for eating at home is VAT exempt). A more nuanced tax structure could be developed based on the equivalent costs of mitigating greenhouse gas emissionscurrently estimated by the UK government at £67 per tonne of carbon dioxide or equivalent gasesincreasing the price of a kilo of beef mince by around £1.70.

Such a tax won’t reduce UK emissions to zero but it needs to be part of the solution. A 2016 study that included the wider costs to society from greenhouse gas emissions in food in the UK estimated reductions in emissions equivalent to heating nearly 1500 homes for a year or 85 000 transatlantic Boeing 747 flights, alongside hundreds fewer premature deaths from healthier diets.

The impact on UK farmers of changing diets could be reduced by enhancing and accelerating the implementation of the Environmental Land Management scheme, offering subsidies for encouraging biodiversity and afforestation. This becomes increasingly possible with the UK leaving the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy. And the impact on consumersparticularly those on low incomescould be mitigated by using revenues to subsidise healthier and more environmentally sustainable foods, or by rebalancing the wider tax system to benefit poorer households.

But why should the UK act alone? Well yes, the US eats far more meat than the UK; and yes, UK meat consumption is static while consumption in China is skyrocketing. But the impacts of climate change don’t respect national borders. This is an area on which the UK can genuinely take the leadand the competitive advantage. 

At some point the world will be forced to reduce the amount of meat and dairy it consumes (the UK Committee on Climate Change says we need a 20% fall in beef, lamb, and dairy consumption to get to net zero emissions, the Eating Better alliance suggests 50% less by 2030), and the UK agricultural system has the opportunity to get ahead of this curve. It’s a win for British farmers, it’s a win for health, and it’s a win for the planet.

The UK looks set to co-host next year’s UN flagship climate change conference, COP26, with the world watching this major test of the Paris Agreement. If Boris Johnson wants to honour his pledges for basing tax policy on clear evidence, for tackling climate change, supporting British farmers, and for putting Britain back on the world stage, then this is surely a good place to start.

Adam Briggs is a public health specialty registrar and an academic visitor at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford. Twitter @ADMBriggs

Competing interests: Adam Briggs is a vegetarian, but will eat meat and fish if it will otherwise be wasted.