Despite the fanfare around the UK government’s “Build Back Greener” strategy, it missed a wide open goal. The word “oil” appeared 133 times, “coal” 40 times, and “gas” a colossal 468 times. But “meat” and “dairy”? Fewer than five between them. This is despite food representing a third of global greenhouse gas emissions – with animal agriculture producing the vast majority (over 80 per cent). Small changes in our diet, like cutting down on meat or dairy, can hugely reduce our carbon footprint.
Plant-based food’s potential to help the UK reduce emissions is huge, and backed by experts. Yet despite advice from the UN, the government’s own National Food Strategy, and even David Attenborough, the UK government is failing to acknowledge – let alone encourage – eating more plants.
Indeed, a government research paper recommending people “shift dietary habits” towards plant-based foods was deleted hours after being published online. But why? People are increasingly willing to make small changes to what they eat. Almost half of Europe’s population is already introducing more plants into its diet.
A likely cause is the UK’s policy of agricultural subsidy. Governments provide over $500bn in annual support to agriculture across the world, but the bulk of this goes towards emission-intensive commodities, including beef and milk. It doesn’t need to be like this. Increased government support for plant-based diet agriculture could take four-fifths of greenhouse gas emissions out of food production entirely.
This isn’t about everyone ditching meat and dairy immediately. They’re an important part of many British families’ lives. But small changes, like just one “plant-based” day each week, can knock a whopping 10 per cent off your personal dietary carbon footprint next year.
If everyone in the UK had one plant-based day a week in their diet, it would be equivalent to half of the nation’s cars being taken off the road for good. These incremental changes in our lifestyle can have a massive difference, without forcing people in the “meat eater” vs “non meat-eater” camps.
Unfortunately, as things stand, consumers don’t have the information they need to assess the impact their food choices have on the planet, even just in terms of CO2. In a post-COP world, this isn’t a “nice to have”. It’s vital. Redirecting subsidies would help in the long term, but right now the UK government should take a bold step and introduce a simple labelling system showing the carbon footprint of the food we buy. Just like you see a traffic light labelling system on foods for fats, sugars and salt, the same could be done for carbon emissions.
While some schemes to do this are in their early stages, they are too broad and try to combine the carbon emissions of food with other serious issues such as food’s water usage and its impact on biodiversity into one vague idea of”impact”. What we need are clear, readable labels on food which tell us its carbon footprint, and allow us to make better informed decisions as consumers.
Food is something that we all consume every day, and it’s one of the areas where we have the greatest influence on our carbon footprint. You and I can’t build a new solar power plant in our back garden or install a set of wind turbines overnight. But we can easily replace the mince in our shepherd’s pie with mushrooms and lentils every now and again.
Jonathan Petrides is the Founder & CEO of allplants
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