Meat: the climate change COP-out?

We have a problem. People love meat. It just tastes so good. But our love affair with meat consumption plays an astonishing role in climate change.

And yet, while leaders and delegates from at least 190 nations are gathering in Paris for COP21, ostensibly to slow climate change, food production does not appear prominently on the climate talks’ agenda. Why not? We’re not sure: Globally, food systems are responsible for up to 30% of all human driven greenhouse gases. Half of that is attributable to meat production.

That’s the same proportion as direct emissions from cars, planes, trains and ships combined.

Looking at meat and what the hospitality and food service business can do to play its part in slowing climate change presents a real opportunity.

“Reducing global meat consumption will be critical to keeping global warming below the ‘danger level’ of two degrees Celsius, the main goal of the upcoming climate negotiations in Paris,” says one of the authors of Chatham House’s report on meat, Changing Climate, Changing Diets which we reported in brief on last week.

It’s not just climate issues either. Halving of global consumption of grain-fed meat would enable two billion more people in the world to have enough to eat by feeding what we feed livestock to people instead.

Most news outlets headlined on the proposal in the Chatham House report for a tax on meat on the basis that it could lead to a 14% reduction in consumption. Dig a little deeper and the report highlights a number of much more interesting complementary ideas and approaches to educate and inform the public, as well as practical insights for hospitality operators.

While consumers are eating 20% less meat when they eat out than they were back in 2001, there is still plenty of work to be done and we believe strongly that chefs and the foodservice industry can play a frontline role in helping to change behaviour. A shift to healthier diets and more climate-smart, sustainable food production is key to tackling our greatest public health challenges as well as securing a livable future for humanity.

Insights for the Industry

What will make people consider eating a bit less meat when they eat out which in turn might make them think about what they eat at home too? Well, for a start, a good sales pitch probably isn’t ‘why don’t you eat less meat?’. Selling a compelling benefit is key, whether that’s around health or cost but the key is to drop the ethical messages and sell up the positives of vegetables or meat substitutes as a brilliant, modern alternative not an act of going-without or pious self-sacrifice.

People won’t eat less meat if they’re not offered good alternatives – our environment dictates much of our behaviour. Excuse the pun, but this is where the real meat of the Chatham House report lies for chefs. How options are presented on a menu can have a significant effect on diners’ choices. Dispersing healthier and more sustainable options throughout the main menu, rather than grouping them together makes people more likely to choose them, the report concludes. People are herd animals – they like belonging and feeling part of the norm, not the niche.

Always making the daily special a non-meat dish is another way of guiding consumers in a positive way. But, just promote those cuisines (Mediterranean or southern Indian for example) that naturally major on veg and the non-use of meat is automatically a non-issue. You’re not removing or replacing anything. Meat won’t be missed if it was never there.

For those worried that replacing some meat dishes will be unpopular with customers, check the stats from Defra. People are already eating 20% less meat when they eat out compared with 15 years ago.

High profile chefs like Alain Ducasse and Bruno Loubet of Grain Store have been leading the way, removing meat and beef from their menus respectively. They are not alone, but there is much more that can be done. Tim Bouget of ODE-truefood, three time winner of Sustainable Restaurant of the Year Award, believes many chefs are ducking their important role. You can read his blog here.

We’re absolutely not advocating a wholesale conversion to vegetarianism or veganism. A call to ‘give-up’ meat would simply be a misunderstanding of the mentality of meat-eaters and its benefits. Instead we believe it’s about changes that modify relationships with meat. To coin a phrase, small changes can make a big difference. We believe in the principle of eating less and better quality. But what does that mean in reality?

Eating Less?

Research shows that going meat-free for one day a week can have a significant impact. A report by Johns Hopkins University concludes that if UN member countries did this, they would reduce carbon emissions by up to 2% per year. But it could just be a meal a day.

Simon Crannage, Executive Chef at Samuel’s at Swinton Park, has found that by making the non-meat dishes (or just dishes as he likes to call them – case in point) sound, look and taste really delicious, diners will choose them and not notice that there are fewer meat dishes. Read his blog here.

Eating Better?

When we talk about ‘better’, we mean meat that’s produced extensively rather than intensively. So the animals graze outdoors and experience better welfare conditions. There’s less use of antibiotics and importantly, grazing sheep and cattle on permanent pasture can play a positive role in storing carbon in the soil and even boost biodiversity in areas like the flower rich, chalk grassland of the South Downs National Park.

There is no question that demand for healthier, better food is there and a revolution in eating habits is threatening to break out. What we need from the climate talks in France is the spark. A world leader perhaps to tweak Michael Pollan’s mantra and utter: “Let them eat mostly plants!”

Maybe taxation could be a part of the answer, but we believe more pressing is the need for the hospitality industry to take the lead by providing customers with delicious, tasty, veg-centric alternatives that headline the show – and work towards ensuring that the meat they do serve meets the quality criteria laid out here.

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