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Europeans must eat less meat or risk ‘farmageddon’

Awareness of the significant environmental impacts of producing and eating meat has doubled since 2007 – claims Vicki Hird

The reluctance of politicians to talk about meat consumption is becoming increasingly indefensible. What we eat is a no longer purely a personal matter, however much they would like it to be. Public concern about the impact of food consumption is growing and so is the evidence. It continues to demonstrate the huge social, health and environmental impact of meat and dairy.

The latest addition to the debate is a fabulous book, which has rightly generated headlines. Farmageddon: the true cost of cheap meat is written by the chief executive of Compassion in World Farming Philip Lymbery and Sunday Times investigative journalist Isabel Oakeshott. They took three years to investigate the livestock trade – across the globe – often pushing at the closed doors of a rapidly changing industry.

What they witness and describe is often shocking – not only in terms of animals suffering or even the massive pollution caused by industrial-scale feeding and rearing systems but the significant human and social consequences must surely make politicians take note and, ideally, action. Whole communities bumped of their land; fishing communities or dairy farmers finding their livelihoods destroyed; obesity crises partly caused by meat-based junk foods; and the list continues.

Doubtless the public will respond. It would be difficult to eat most farmed fish after reading this book. Reactions will be strong, although the writers have been careful and the book is not unduly sensationalist. Given the subject, it is good to find the writing is compelling and energising.

Arguing that further intensifying production is not the key to future food security, the authors concur with many official reports on food security; that tackling waste and Western meat consumption sits alongside poverty reduction and trade reform. Blogs on the Eating better website from a wide range of voices in the debate confirm this growing global consensus.

With so much noise about meat, the question now is whether the public will accept policies that affect their consumption. The evidence suggests they are warming to the idea, if designed well. A recent poll in the United Kingdom suggested a change in attitudes towards meat. One in three say they are willing to consider eating less meat with a quarter saying they have already cut back on the amount of meat they ate over the last year. Awareness of the significant environmental impacts of producing and eating meat has doubled since 2007.

The European Union has a real chance to push start the debate about what mechanisms will work to drive a new consumption pattern – making eating less and better meat the norm. The European Commission’s sustainable food communication within the resource use framework provides that opportunity. On one measure – land use associated with EU consumption of livestock products – we are clearly over the limit, as the recent report of the Land and Soils Working Group of the International Resource Panel pointed out. It said: “The EU 27 required 0.31ha per person of cropland worldwide, which is a quarter more than what is available domestically – a safer operating level would be around 0.20ha per person.”

The findings echo research by Friends of the Earth on Europe’s global land footprint. The report says that the EU should monitor and control the level of global land use for supplying consumption. This means encouraging consumers and the food industry to make the shift towards eating better quality meat and less of it.

The commission has already agreed a land reduction target along with carbon, water and material targets. Meat consumption would be affected as a major part of the EU’s footprint but this objective has become sadly bogged down in a statistical quagmire. Happily some MEPs are pushing for action and we have the potential for some useful content in the sustainable food communiqué, if the commission stays true to the original objectives. Politicians worldwide must take note. The public, the evidence and increasingly the politics are getting onside.

Vicki Hird is a campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. Follow her on Twitter @vickihird

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