Meat and dairy-based diets ‘must fall by 20% in next decade’ to hit UK climate goals

Without a shift in the national diet, it will be difficult to free up land for carbon storage, the Climate Change Committee has said.

There is no recent, reliable data on the number of people following vegetarian or vegan diets in the UK.
There is no recent, reliable data on the number of people following vegetarian or vegan diets in the UK.

Reducing meat and dairy consumption by 20% in the next decade will be “fundamental” to achieving key climate goals, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has said.

The committee, the UK’s independent adviser on climate change, has recommended a 20% shift away from all meat and dairy products in diets by 2030 in their 2021 Progress Report to Parliament which outlines recommendations for tackling the climate crisis.

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They further recommended a 35% shift away from all meat by 2050.

Chris Stark, CEO of the CCC, said that a shift away from meat and dairy in UK diets is “one of the fundamentals for the transition to net zero by the mid century”.

He said that without doing so, “we will not be able to free up agricultural land for the purposes of sequestering carbon through growing trees and crops”.

This will make it difficult for the UK to meet its goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050, he added.

The CCC report assessed “measures to encourage consumers to shift diets and reduce food waste across the supply chain” as a priority recommendation for the government, meaning that action should be taken immediately, with a review of progress in the mid-2020s.

Stringent measures such as taxation on meat products have not been recommended by the CCC as a way to achieve a reduction in meat and dairy consumption, said Stark.

“The policies for achieving this [reduction] aren’t scary - we’re not advocating for things like taxes on meat, we’re talking about producing better, clearer information for consumers and a sense of the health benefits of changing diet,” he said.

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Currently, there is no reliable data collected on the number of people in the UK who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, with survey figures based on small sample sizes ranging from 1% to 6%.

While the Office for National Statistics conducts a regular National Diet and Nutrition Survey, meat consumption has not been included in the survey since 2012.

Stark believes that the large number of young people following plant-based diets means “it might not be so difficult to get to a point where we’re reducing meat consumption by a fifth and indeed going further than that”.

However, the Government has shown unwillingness to follow previous CCC recommendations on reducing meat and dairy consumption among the public, Stark said.

“This is one of those areas where the government has made it completely clear they don’t intend to follow our recommendations on this.

“If the Government doesn't wish to shift diets in the way we have recommended then it’s going to have to explain what it’s going to do instead.

“They’re going to have to grasp the issue, because there’s only so much land available for carbon sequestration,” he said.

A spokesperson from the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “We want people to have healthy, balanced diets and meat and dairy products are an important part of this alongside fibre, fruit and vegetables.

“We recognise the contribution to greenhouse gas emissions made by the livestock and dairy sectors.

“While food choices can have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions, well-managed livestock provide environmental benefits such as supporting biodiversity, protecting the character of the countryside and generating important income for rural communities.

Public Health England has been approached for comment.

“Our future farming policy will create cleaner, greener landscapes, helping build towards the government’s environmental goals and net zero commitments.”