Labour could put a fresh approach to food and farming on the menu

Kerry McCarthy has a point about the need for a public awareness campaign on meat consumption


Since Kerry McCarthy became shadow environment secretary it has seemed highly likely that a fresh approach to food and farming will be on the menu. Her comments comparing meat to tobacco provoked a fair amount of controversy – slammed by both the farming industry and many in the media as being ‘out of step’ and ‘whacky’.

But surely McCarthy has a point about the need for a public awareness campaign on meat consumption?

Her first speech at Labour’s annual conference as shadow environment secretary signaled that she was going to challenge the government’s approach when she called for farming that is environmentally, as well as economically, sustainable.

She also hit out at government’s plans to allow bee harming pesticides into our fields, and outlined how she wants to address the decline in nature and tackle food poverty.

Kerry McCarthy has a strong track record on farming issues and is well placed to take forward this bold new agenda: she has opposed the badger cull, has spoken out on bees and pesticides and supported Friends of the Earth’s Sustainable Livestock Bill.

And she is right to say that in order to move towards a sustainable farming system we need to address the environmental and health impacts of meat production and consumption.

Meat – should the government tell us what to eat?

It’s widely accepted that our diets have to change. With rising global populations increasingly adopting Western-style high meat diets there is severe pressure on land, water and other resources, along with a significant contribution to climate-changing emissions.

In fact, according to Chatham House and DECC we have to tackle meat consumption if we want to tackle climate change, with Chatham House stating that ‘dietary change is essential if global warming is not to exceed 2C’.

Cutting down on meat in our diets will have huge health benefits too. Eating too much red and processed meat is linked to heart disease, strokes and some cancers, and a study has found that adopting lower meat diets in the UK could prevent 45,000 early deaths and save the NHS £1.2 billion a year.

Framing is crucial – it’s about less and better meat consumption and production

The message is simple and does not have to alienate livestock farmers. We need less and better meat consumption and production. This would mean an end to the drive to produce ever more, ever cheaper meat, and an end to the demand for mega-factory farms in the UK.

We can’t compete with the US and others on volume – and with the animal welfare and environmental impacts, why would we want to? Our farmers should be properly rewarded for producing food to high standards – and this will need concerted action from supermarkets and governments.

The ‘less and better meat’ message is gaining momentum. Two years ago Friends of the Earth helped found Eating Better – an alliance on action for less and better meat consumption, from a plethora of perspectives:  health, environment, animal welfare, farming, religious, business and international development. Now 50 organisations strong, it is growing into a mainstream movement for change on diets.

Food and farming – quality or quantity?

Kerry McCarthy’s plans, outlined in her conference speech, has started to reframe the broader food and farming agenda around quality, diversity, health and resilience in the face of climate change – and to help people reconnect with their food. The previous Labour government’s Food 2030 strategy was a pretty decent start, welcomed for its integrated approach to sustainable food consumption and production in the context of climate change, unhealthy diets and food security.

This approach sharply contrasts with the government’s industry-led 25-year plan for food and farming, which looks set to be predictably narrow, focused mainly on short-term growth and boosting exports, rather than the long-term, integrated strategy we need.

Labour must show leadership where the government is failing. Yes, there are some challenging discussions to be had – but as new research from Which? shows, people get pretty miffed when they realise that no-one has told them about the impacts of their food on climate change, and they are willing to change their eating habits.

There is a role for government, as well as the food industry, in helping make it easy for people to have a healthy, sustainable diet. Kerry McCarthy looks set to seize a golden opportunity to reframe the debate.

Clare Oxborrow is Friends of the Earth’s senior food and farming campaigner, and also chairs the Eating Better alliance

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