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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12 Responses to “Labour could put a fresh approach to food and farming on the menu”

  1. Zarniwoop

    Of course we could solve the climate change problem if everyone just upped and killed themselves or at the very least stopped breeding like rabbits 😀

  2. jj

    McCarthy didn’t say that we should ‘encourage’ people to eat less meat, she said treat them ‘like smokers’, she is putting her own emotive agenda of veganism before the farming industry she ‘represents’ and has in essence lost most of her credibility already…

  3. Paul Southworth

    She never said to treat meat eaters “like smokers”, you are quoting people writing about her, not her own words. What she said was “I really believe that meat should be treated in exactly the same way as tobacco, with public campaigns to stop people eating it”. In other words, we should campaign to reduce meat consumption because of the clear evidence of its harm to health and the environment. If we want evidence-based public health policy, this seems perfectly sensible.

  4. Tommo

    Nutty as a fruitcake.

  5. Barry Hearth

    I’m beginning to think that this forum should rename itself rightfootforward………most posters are as nutty as fruitcakes.


    She needs to be fired, what a moron!

  7. madasafish

    So here we have Clare arguing that food prices should rise as meat is too easily produced and is too cheap.

    And – as a beekeeper – her arguments on bees being killed by pesticides are black and white. The real world is that there are lots of compromises and honey bees are increasing in numbers in the UK (fact- ask the BBKA).

    And it’s great talking about UK standards of raising food as if we are an island and import no food. In reality, if UK grown food is too expensive, we will import cheaper food from abroad.

    So what she writes makes zero economic sense.. and as you cannot place tariffs or block food imports from the EU .. it’s unachieavable.

    So in conclusion, her article is best described by an appropriate farming word : bullshit.

  8. madasafish

    If you want evidence based pubic health policy, you would not start with meat. And you knowthat. You are being disingenuous.
    An evidence based policy would encourage far less consumption of products which kill people: sugar, alcohol and of course tobacco.
    Meat would be low on your list.

    But you know that as well.

    We all know that anti meat eating campaigns are run by people who wish to impose their views on others. Period.
    And not focus on the key issues .

  9. johnm55

    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.

    Only one problem with this argument. The Great British public don’t like paying for quality meat, they would rather buy cheap crap of unknown provenance. – hence horsemeat lasagne. it is only a certain type of middle class poseur that likes to know the family tree of the bacon in their butty.

  10. jj

    “stop people eating it’. “treated as smokers’, so in other words the general gist is treat meat eaters like smokers. And anyhow, it also depends on the type of meat. Chicken and lamb are incredibly good for you. I don’t think politics should be a way of getting emotive policies out there because you have a really strong view about things. She wouldn’t serve the farmers of this country well at all. She needs to listen to the people who actually put the food on our tables.

  11. DoctorFranklin

    There is an emerging community farm sector that may be paving the way for a major structural change in farming, land ownership and the relationship of people to food, land and community. Kerry McCarthy may find that supporting this sector may be an important tool in developing her policy agenda.

  12. Paul Southworth

    When looking at healthy diet, I would absolutely start with meat high up my list. In fact, I think the basic message on diet is: less meat, more veg, less salt, sugar and fat.

    Of course alcohol and tobacco are crucial public health factors but I don’t think dealing with them means we have to ignore encouraging a healthy diet.

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