Knowledge for better food systems

WWF/ Food Ethics Council report Prime Cuts: valuing the meat we eat

WWF and the Food Ethics Council have jointly published a report which explores the whole idea of eating “less but better” meat.

The report is takes as its starting point the suggestion, increasingly raised, that, given the high environmental impacts of meat consumption, we need, in high income countries, to consider eating ‘less meat.’ This is clearly problematic for many stakeholders. Some have therefore argued that a ‘less but better’ approach could be more broadly beneficial. This report is a first step to defining what that message might look like. 

The report identifies nine potential ways to define ‘better’ meat consumption and production across a spectrum of outcomes

  • Better for health
  • Better for climate change and the environment
  • Better for biodiversity
  • Better for animal welfare
  • Better for farming profitability
  • Better for fairness
  • Better for reducing waste
  • Better for quality and taste
  • Better for reconnecting farmers and consumers

The report highlights both ‘win-wins’ across definitions, and trade offs.

For example, it says that pasture-fed livestock and more extensive production systems offer benefits for health and biodiversity and potentially for animal welfare and producers.  Reducing has multiple benefits and is widely supported. A focus on provenance – whether local, regional or national – presents opportunities for connecting, and providing benefits for, producers and consumers. Reconnecting people to food and farmers may provide access to the changes in attitudes and behaviour that would encourage more considered meat consumption. Furthermore, less but better doesn’t necessarily need to cost consumers more if the savings from buying less offset higher costs of better meat and meat products.

As regards trade offs, defining better meat consumption as having a lower greenhouse gas impact in isolation is problematic. More extensive systems, such organic farming, which are  typically associated with higher levels of animal welfare and environmental stewardship, rear slower growing animals that during the course of a longer life require more feed energy and produce more methane – increasing their greenhouse gas impact. Such judgements are not always clear cut, and are complicated by the need to include the impacts of land-use change from animal feed, nitrous oxide emission and carbon sequestration through pasture in life cycle assessments.

The report also recognises that the issue of trade complicates things.  Meat imports make up 42% of  UK consumption, and exports 20% of UK production. Hence reduced UK consumption does not necessarily translate into reduced UK production and may have unintended consequences. Neither can it be  assumed that if consumers reduce their consumption they will automatically seek out UK sourced meat and trade up to better that improves economic returns for farmers. Reduced demand through less meat consumption could potentially put downward pressure on prices as the same number of producers chase fewer customers.

The report raises the idea that the industry could mitigate potential lower UK sales by positioning itself as an exporter of high quality, sustainably produced meat, but recognises that that unless production and consumption policies are addressed elsewhere in the world, this could be perceived as the UK undermining its responsibilities towards greenhouse gas mitigation. The EU’s Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe and reform of the Common Agricultural Policy potentially offer scope for a coordinated approach to sustainable consumption and production policies, including economic incentives for more environmentally sustainable and higher welfare farming models that could accompany reduced consumption.

Finally, the report suggests that the most important aspect of ‘better’ may be that in eating ‘better’ meat people recognise it as a valuable resource. By recognising it as a high quality food, people may be encouraged to acknowledge and respect the animals that provided it, the farmers that produced it and those in the supply chain that prepared and delivered it; and in recognising its value, may be be less inclined to waste it.

Citation as follows: Prime cuts: Valuing the meat we eat, WWF and Food Ethics Council, February 2013.

The link to the report is here and the press release is here and a related blog here.

Note that WWF (sometimes in partnership with others) has done a substantial amount of work on the whole issue of diets and meat consumption, and has produced a number of reports which are well worth reading.  You can find them all here.

EBLEX, the English Beef and Lamb Executive are supportive of the report’s focus on quality, see here although it does not refer to the ‘less’ aspect of the ‘less but better’ phrase.

Note that the FCRN has a forum focused on sustainable healthy diets, which includes a structured set of questions. Please do use the forums as a way of getting in touch with others working in this area – or in any other broadly related to food and sustainability.

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