What we eat helps to define who we are. As Keith Floyd once said, “food is life, life is food”. Descriptions of Britishness often talk of fish and chips or roast beef, and we are a nation passionate about our food. So it’s understandable that politicians are wary of trying to influence our diets.
But perhaps inadvertently the Prime Minister has committed himself to doing just that. By backing a Net Zero economy, his government has legally bound itself to changing how people live their lives. That includes eating less meat.
According to the independent Committee on Climate Change, if the UK is to make good on its climate targets, meat consumption needs to fall by 20 per cent by 2030. Current trends towards veggie sausages and “plant-based diets” won’t deliver that change fast enough. Hitting the CCC’s target means the amount of meat we eat needs to fall at roughly four times the speed that it did between 1980-2015. Any politician hoping to achieve such a reduction by just telling voters to eat less meat for the sake of the planet is taking a major risk. No wonder George Eustice, the environment secretary, says he didn’t want to “lecture” people about eating meat.
If persuasion won’t work, what about tax? There’s lots of speculation about meat levies: proponents say it would mean the price of meat would properly reflect its ecological and public health costs. Boris Johnson has one word for the idea: “No”. Conservatives rule out meat taxes because they believe voters won’t stomach it. Recent polling suggests that 61 per cent of Tory voters were strongly opposed to a meat tax, compared to 43 per cent of Labour voters. Yet saying No to a meat tax while saying Yes to Net Zero leaves Johnson with a difficult circle to square.
Fortunately for the PM, a new Social Market Foundation paper published today offers him a solution: artificial meat. The government should stimulate a market for meatless meat, and in doing so, expand the options available to consumers so they have access to high-quality, affordable “alternative proteins”. Whilst supermarkets shelves are increasingly stocked with plant-based sausages, burgers and ready-meals, this is just the start of a revolution in “meat analogue” technology. It’s now possible to make meat without using an animal.
We just need to make it cheaper and easier to produce and buy. The promise of this revolution is that alternative proteins have a much smaller greenhouse gas emissions impact, as much as 93 per cent lower than conventional meat production for plant- based products. Transitioning away from reliance on animal protein will also reduce the huge threats flowing from intensive animal agriculture, like antibiotic resistance and zoonotic diseases; we hardly need reminding of the impact of the latter.
The environmental dividend is just the start. A vast export market looms large for British businesses, with China the jewel in the crown after Beijing issued new ‘dietary guidance’ demanding that Chinese people cut down on meat consumption by 50 per cent. The challenge is that alternative protein R&D is high-risk, multi-disciplinary and requires coordination between academics, tech companies and big players in the food system. Governments are perfectly suited to driving this kind of innovation.
Johnson has a choice. Either Britain can be like France and Spain, descending into unhelpful culture wars over meat consumption. Or we can be like Singapore and Israel, using public funds to incubate cutting-edge tech firms and providing strategic leadership in the alternative protein sector. In practice, this would start with signing off the National Food Strategy’s recommendation for a £50 million research cluster. Beyond that, ministers should take the same logic they have applied to the offshore wind sector and throw the full energy of the British state behind alternative proteins.
With delicious, affordable and readily-available meat analogues in shops and on restaurant menus, voters might feel more relaxed about moving away from animal-based meat. Nothing here should trouble either libertarians or Britain’s world-class farmers: traditional meat will and should always be on the menu. A thriving alternative protein sector would simply give consumers more choice. There is a way for the PM to keep his promises on the environment without intervening in our diets, while also delivering new technology and industry for Global Britain at the same time. Alternative proteins could let Boris Johnson have his steak and eat it.
Linus Pardoe is a research associate at the Social Market Foundation