16 July 2021

Forget the Frosties tax, Dimbleby’s strategy offers food for thought

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Yesterday’s publication of the second instalment of the National Food Strategy was rightly met with indignation from consumer advocates, who largely took aim at its recommendation to hike the price of everyday essentials by introducing taxes on salt and sugar. A calamitous Today programme interview, in which Henry Dimbleby, the report’s author, seemed to suggest the NHS would be annihilated by our collective hankering for Frosties, didn’t help either.

But the Strategy did have some more redeeming features. Prior to its publication, the farming community was desperately anxious to know what pronouncements lay in store for meat production – given the impacts animal agriculture has on the natural world. In the end, livestock farmers up and down the country were probably breathing a sigh of relief.

The headline recommendation was for meat consumption to fall by 30% by 2032. While this still represents a big shift, most of the ideas put forward for how to get there were not as draconian as first feared.

Most notably, one thing firmly off the table was a general ‘meat tax’. The Strategy notes how one would be difficult to administer, and in all likelihood end up hitting poorer families hardest. Perhaps the worst consequence of such a tax, however, would be that it if this is seen as the thin end of the climate action wedge, support for the level of decarbonisation necessary to meet goals such as Net Zero could quickly crumble.

So if a new tax isn’t on the menu, what is? How do the report’s authors think we can cut emissions from meat?

The ‘headline grabber’, as the Strategy notes, is lab-grown meat. Otherwise known as cultured meat, or clean meat, this refers to genuine animal protein, only grown without the inconvenience of being attached to a sentient creature, and all that goes with it. A 2011 study estimated that, per kilogram, clean meat can produce up to 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, while also taking up far fewer land and water inputs.

Dimbleby and co call for £50 million to be put towards a commercial cluster for entrepreneurs and scientists to work on alternative proteins, which I can’t see much harm in. The Government is committed to increasing R&D spending, and this is about as close to the cutting edge as research can get. The prize on offer is a more sustainable, more resilient, and hopefully cheaper and more nutritious food system.

Subsidies for breakthrough research like this are all well and good, but where it would have been nice to see the Strategy being more explicit would have been with regards to the regulatory frameworks governing clean meat. Knowing that it will be legal to market and sell a product once you’ve put money and effort into developing it is a sine qua non for innovators.

Already, rent seekers in the farming lobby are doing their level best to throw up regulatory barriers to clean meat. The Government must not give into their protectionist siren calls. Any regulations must be proportionate, science-based and consumer (not producer) oriented.

On which note, the UK should also review the judgement handed down by the European Court of Justice, which bans ‘dairy-style’ names for plant-based alternatives – which, for example, render oat ‘milk’ as oat ‘drink’. The precise impact of this ludicrous law is up for debate, but it isn’t unreasonable to argue that it suffocates demand for carbon-friendly foodstuffs by making such products sound less appetising and more unfamiliar than they might otherwise be.

A better regulatory environment is not the only way the Government could help cut emissions from the food system in a pro-consumer way, however.

The Strategy casts light on the various ways in which animal agriculture is subsidised – either through direct payments to farmers, or via public procurement. To the Government’s credit on the former, the UK is phasing out the payments farmers could collect under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which reward them simply on the basis of the amount of land they own. Future subsidies will be more closely tied to environmental services farmers provide, such as rewilding.

On the latter, a good case could be made by fiscal conservatives for the public sector embracing more plant-based foods. According to the Strategy, the public sector dishes up nearly 2 billion meals a year, making it a significant buyer in the food system.

To be sure, not every vegan meal is a cheap one (though the same is only truer of ones containing meat). But I’m willing to bet that the state can reduce its catering costs by forgoing animal flesh, even if only occasionally – it really is quite a challenge to bankrupt yourself buying only vegetables, basic carbohydrates, and tins of assorted legumes.

A shift to more sustainable diets will axiomatically reduce emissions and nudge us closer to our climate goals. Thankfully, this transition is already happening voluntarily, rather than at the behest of the state. Each year, more people are switching to an entirely vegan lifestyle, while many others are reducing their intake of animal products, even if remaining omnivorous.

Yet that’s not to say there’s nothing the Government can do to help. There are plenty of levers ministers could pull on which could help point us in a better direction, without unduly interfering in people’s lives. For all of its flaws elsewhere, the Strategy makes a good start at outlining what some of those may be.

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Eamonn Ives is the Head of Energy and Environment at the Centre for Policy Studies.