After a battery of criticism over the weekend, the Government finally published its long awaited “Food Strategy” this week to little industry fanfare. One of the most vocal critics was Henry Dimbleby, DEFRA’s own lead non-executive board member, who published his own set of food strategy recommendations in 2021. This time, he did not mince his words: “It doesn’t set out a clear vision as to why we have the problems we have now and it doesn’t set out what needs to be done.”
While the report does have some encouraging words on supporting the expanding alternative meat industry, it lacks tangible commitments to see the industry prosper within the UK. The Government must commit to expanded funding before the country falls behind international competitors.
Cows are incredibly nutritionally inefficient and are extremely damaging for the environment as a whole. Producing 100g of protein in beef requires 1,500 litres of water and causes the equivalent of just under 50kg of CO2 to be emitted. This is 5-10 times higher than for the production of poultry and 20 times higher than for grains. The agriculture sector accounts for about 11 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions with a significant proportion of that coming from meat (and animal feed) production. Currently, the average person in the UK consumes about 18 kg of beef per year, around twice the global average.
Our current eating habits are unsustainable. If we are going to reach net-zero by 2050 we must either reduce our meat intake or find new ways to reduce the emissions from the meat we eat. On both counts, the Government’s food strategy lacks ambition.
Firstly, the report contains no reduction targets for meat consumption. While consumers are making progress, having reduced their meat intake by around 17 per cent over the last decade, many experts argue that further reductions are needed to reach net zero and progress could stall without an official government target.
Secondly, while the report does promise to develop post-Brexit policy frameworks and funding to support alternative protein sources, it neither offers any detail on how to develop the sector nor any additional funding beyond what had already been announced.
The UK was one of the trailblazers for alternative protein sources: Quorn was first developed from a fungus found growing in Buckinghamshire, and the industry has continued to grow at roughly 5 per cent a year with a valuation of just under £600 million in 2021. Beyond Meat and Impossible Food continue to capture headlines and are increasingly sold in major food chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King. Laying the correct groundwork now could energise a consumer and industry-led revolution, allowing consumers to eat more sustainable diets.
The government has already shown its desire to use Brexit freedoms to aid food security and promote sustainable agriculture with its relaxation of legislation surrounding gene-editing. It needs to earmark the alternative protein industry with the same vigour and come forward with a formal strategy promoting the uptake and production of plant based meat alternatives within the UK.
This would help the industry to attract investment and ensure the UK does not fall behind other countries. China has already announced a five year plan to support cultivated and alternative protein, the Netherlands dedicated €60 million of public funding to support cellular agriculture and Denmark committed over €150 million to research.