The only way to have sustainable land use in this country, and avoid ecological breakdown, is to vastly reduce consumption of meat and dairy, according to the UK government’s food tsar.
Henry Dimbleby told the Guardian that although asking the public to eat less meat – supported by a mix of incentives and penalties – would be politically toxic, it was the only way to meet the country’s climate and biodiversity targets.
“It’s an incredibly inefficient use of land to grow crops, feed them to a ruminant or pig or chicken which then over its lifecycle converts them into a very small amount of protein for us to eat,” he said.
Currently, 85% of agricultural land in England is used for pasture for grazing animals such as cows or to grow food which is then fed to livestock. Dimbleby, the Leon restaurant chain co-founder and a respected voice in Conservative circles, believes a 30% meat reduction over 10 years is required for land to be used sustainably in England. Others go much further: Greenpeace, for example, say we must reduce our meat intake by 70%.
“If we fail on this,” Dimbleby said, “we will fail to meet our biodiversity or climate goals in this country. We also have a huge opportunity to show thought leadership worldwide, and show them that this can be done, that we can farm sustainably and still feed people.”
Dimbleby has authored two government-commissioned reports into the UK’s food system but the white paper that followed, published by Boris Johnson’s government in June, was widely criticised for watering down his key recommendations and contained few new measures to tackle the soaring cost of food, childhood hunger, obesity or the climate emergency.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Dimbleby said when asked about the omission of meat reduction policies in the government’s white paper.
“It’s such a politicised area, it’s one that everyone globally avoids. You’ve got huge lobbies campaigning for consumption, and the public don’t like the idea of reducing meat and dairy.”
Dimbleby himself did not recommend a levy on animal products.
“The government would fall within a fortnight if it implemented a meat tax”, he said. “There’s no point recommending impossible things.”
There is a huge cultural shift needed for people in England to stop feeling like they need to eat meat so regularly, Dimbleby said.
“It goes right back to Magna Carta, the idea of what I do on my land is my business. Even though the government wouldn’t be implementing a kind of Stalinist five-year plan, there would still be a combination of incentives and regulation.
“The French used to call us roast beef, you know, and in the 19th century you’d get people who would go over to France and comment on how sickly they were, that English people were strong because they ate lots of beef. That continues today … The public are now actually incredibly supportive of some measures – the salt and sugar [tax] was a popular measure. But anything the government got involved in with meat, that was resisted.”
The way we produce food and use land post-Brexit is due to change, with a land use strategy set to be published by the government – but stuck in the limbo of the Tory party leadership race.
Farmers have faced a rollercoaster in their fortunes since the EU referendum. The paperwork involved with shipping produce to the EU has dampened exports, and the government has struggled to implement new subsidy regimes, which would pay farmers for conserving the environment, to take over from the loss of EU payments. Covid lockdowns further disrupted supply chains.
Rising fuel prices have resulted in a tripling of fertiliser prices, ever more erratic weather driven by the climate crisis has added extra volatility, and the impact has still to be felt of trade deals with countries such as Australia that experts say are likely to let cheap but lower-standard food flood in.
The result is farmers crying out for clearer direction, at a time when the government is in disarray. Vicki Hird, head of farming at Sustain, a coalition of food and farming organisations, said: “This political upheaval will be hard to watch for UK farmers who face so many uncertainties … what they really need is a stable policy and no new shocks so they can plan ahead, knowing that an ambitious support system is on track, that regulations are clear and that they won’t be sold out under new trade deals. Our farmers need stability so they can have a viable business and plan their moves to climate- and nature-based farming.”
Rural England has long been a Tory heartland, regularly returning “true blue” MPs from the shires, and at the 2019 election 46% of voters in rural counties voted Conservative and only 29% for Labour. But polling conducted before Johnson’s resignation by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents nearly 30,000 landowners and rural businesses, found a sizeable swing of about 7.5%, from the Tories to Labour, putting the two main parties neck and neck in rural areas. The Liberal Democrats present another threat to rural Tory dominance; the rural seat of Tiveron and Honiton was formerly a safe blue seat but turned yellow in the recent byelection.
Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers’ Union, met Johnson in the days before the publication of his food strategy, warning him that he was in danger of losing the farming vote.
Batters said she told Johnson farmers wanted to see a change in focus from nature recovery back to food production.
“It is nice to deliver public goods but first and foremost we have to be supported to produce food. I made this point to the PM,” she said, adding: “Farmers have a statutory underpinning on trees and nature – but we would like to see one on food production otherwise it will be left behind – .”
Batters said recently that it is “criminal” to frame farming as meat versus trees and going vegan, adding that an “honest conversation” about grasslands and the carbon they store “hasn’t been allowed to happen”.
But Dimbleby says there is limited truth in claims about pasture being good for the environment.
He told the Guardian: “It may turn out that there is some new way of grazing with which we can sequester carbon in the long term but at the moment all forms of meat production are significantly carbon positive.”
Some farmers argue that the land used for pasture, particularly that in the barren uplands, is useless for anything else due to the poor nutrient content of the soil. But this is the very land Dimbleby believes should be taken out of food production and rewilded. Taking just 5% out of production and restoring the lost landscapes they used to contain could be enough, he said.
“One of the arguments people make about pasture is that land is not good for anything else,” he said. “But actually, even more than the actual direct carbon emissions from ruminants, the opportunity cost of the land they occupy is huge. We destroyed most of our rainforests 1,000 years ago in this country but most of that land has huge potential to store carbon. Almost all the land you took out of food production should be low-grade extensive pasture.”