The future of UK food production: reducing meat consumption and fostering innovation

This is the first in a series of blogs from the finalists of this year’s Policy Idol competition. These blogs were originally presented as policy pitches at the live final of the competition earlier this year. Policy Idol is an annual competition open to all staff and students at King’s.

By Louis Phelps

Meat consumption has reached unprecedented levels. Global production is now at 300 million tonnes each year and is predicted to increase 75 per cent by 2050. The industry currently generates around 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire transport sector. What’s more, this may be a conservative estimate, with some studies suggesting that meat production accounts for as much as 51 per cent of total emissions. Livestock farming is also the leading cause of deforestation and species loss, and is responsible for increasing global food insecurity, with 44 per cent of the world’s grain harvest used to feed livestock whilst hundreds of millions of people continue to suffer from hunger. As well as environmental damage, meat consumption is also contributing to declining public health. Here in the UK we eat around 210 grams of meat a day, double the global average, and with high meat diets increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and obesity, this is putting extra pressure on our already stretched health services.

The solution is clear: we need to transition to a lower meat diet. A reduction to recommended healthy levels of 70 grams a day could cut emissions by a third and promote better health. As we know, eating less meat is already an emerging trend; nearly a third of the UK population has cut down on its meat intake in the last 12 months. This policy aims to accelerate this process by raising awareness and increasing the cost of meat whilst simultaneously making our agricultural sector more dynamic and sustainable. To achieve this, the policy has three main stages: a public awareness campaign, subsidy withdrawal, and investment in improving current practices and developing alternative industries.

Louis Phelps delivers his pitch to the Policy Idol judges

Louis Phelps delivers his pitch to the Policy Idol judges

The first part of the policy comprises a campaign to raise public awareness of the links between high meat consumption and environmental damage. A recent study by Chatham House conducted focus groups in 12 countries, including the UK, and found that awareness of this relationship is particularly low and that populations expect governments to take the lead on this issue. A key conclusion of the study was that governments overestimate potential public opposition to policies tackling high meat consumption. This campaign therefore aims to lay the foundations for the subsidy changes and initiate a shift in public attitudes towards meat, reframing it as a luxury product rather than a staple part of our diets.

The second stage of the policy is subsidy withdrawal. Currently, our farmers receive around £2 billion a year in direct subsidy payments and a further £600 million in rural development payments from the EU under the Common Agricultural Policy. After the UK leaves the EU, these payments will end, but the Chancellor has committed to match current funding levels until 2020. From this point onwards I propose the gradual withdrawal of financial support to the livestock sector. With reducing subsidies, the price of meat will rise to reflect the true cost of production, easing consumer demand and reducing consumption. Temporary tariffs will stop imported meat undercutting domestic supply and protect farmers during the initial stages of the policy.

Louis was crowned overall winner of Policy Idol. He collected his prize from former Home Secretary Charles Clarke

Louis was crowned overall winner of Policy Idol. He collected his prize from former Home Secretary Charles Clarke

Increasing the price of a commodity is the most effective way of reducing consumption, as demonstrated by the success of the recently introduced plastic bag charge, which has seen usage drop by 85 per cent in England. Whilst the drop in meat consumption would be less sudden and dramatic, the fact that meat purchases in the UK declined by 11.5 per cent in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, suggests that an economic approach such as this has the potential to generate a significant reduction in consumer demand. Moreover, subsidy withdrawal has numerous advantages over a direct meat tax or increase in VAT. Withdrawing subsidies has the benefit of targeting both supply and demand, thereby maximising the intended effects whilst being likely to encounter less public resistance than a direct tax as a less interventionist approach. In fact, this policy can be seen as an absolute reduction in government intervention, with the current situation one in which low-cost meat is being subsidised.

The third stage of the policy is to make the funding previously used for subsidies available for two alternative purposes. The first is to help farmers remaining in the livestock industry increase efficiency to become profitable without the need for subsidies. New Zealand offers an example in this regard. Agricultural subsidies were withdrawn overnight in 1985 and productivity increased dramatically, with New Zealand’s agricultural sector now one of the most dynamic and productive in the world. The aim of this policy, therefore, is not to eliminate the livestock sector, but to make it smaller, more efficient, and more sustainable, and one that can compete internationally in terms of quality.

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Its second purpose will be to support farmers leaving the industry to transition to new methods of food production and different land uses. These could be relatively straightforward alternatives, such as reforesting land, expanding wetland areas, or creating agri-tourism sites. On the other hand, they could be more innovative solutions, such as creating vertical crop farms, making plant-based meat alternatives, or producing in-vitro meat grown from stem cells in the lab. These industries have the potential to be more profitable for farmers whilst providing increased consumer choice, improving public health, and fighting climate change. By advancing current practices and investing in these new sectors, in the long-term this policy aims to create a more dynamic agricultural sector that is not dependent on government support to survive.

We have, then, an opportunity to make our diets healthier and our agricultural sector more varied and sustainable. By withdrawing financial support to the livestock sector and using that funding to improve current practices and develop new industries, we can simultaneously reduce our meat consumption and its effects on the planet and public health whilst creating a more dynamic and profitable agricultural sector that benefits farmers and consumers alike. On a broader level, this is a chance for the UK to initiate a global shift towards low-meat diets whilst leading the way in agricultural innovation.

Louis Phelps is studying for a MA in International Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London.

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