The UK government is due to publish a white paper on its National Food Strategy in May, part of its most recent effort to build a food system fit for the 21st century. Advocates say that to modernize its food strategy, ministers need to propose policies that promote dietary change, reduce meat and dairy production, and pave the way for a just transition that affords farmers a safe way out of animal agriculture.
Tim Thorpe, Senior Campaigns and Policy Officer at the Vegan Society, says a move in that direction would represent a “massive win.”
Transforming the food system
The white paper, which lays out plans for future legislation, will draw heavily from a National Food Strategy review released in July 2021. The report, authored by restauranteur Henry Dimbleby, made a series of recommendations for transforming the food system.
Dimbleby argues that changes to the “national diet” need to include a 30 percent reduction in meat by 2032, compared to 2019, in order to “meet health, climate and nature commitments.” “Our current appetite for meat is unsustainable,” the report states. “Eighty-five percent of total land that produces UK food is used to graze livestock or produce crops to feed to animals. We need some of that land back.”
The review also called for some farmland to be repurposed for nature- and climate-related purposes. Other farms will need to change to more sustainable practices, such as agroecology, which would involve a reduction in the number of animals farmed.
Reducing meat and dairy production
Dimbleby’s recommendations echo the findings of the world’s leading climate scientists. In 2019, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that a significant drop in meat consumption in richer countries is needed to cut the greenhouse gas emissions associated with animal agriculture. The UK’s own Climate Change Committee also recommended a 20 percent cut in meat consumption in its 2020 guidance on emissions reduction.
But the government has generally steered clear of addressing the need for a reduction in meat and dairy production and consumption. As Politics Home pointed out, for example, the 368-page-long net zero strategy it published in October 2021 didn’t mention “meat” at all.
Thorpe told Sentient Media that the government is effectively operating a “have your cake and eat it [too]” policy, meaning they are promoting sustainable farming practices without changing the amount of meat being produced. For example, the government will begin paying farmers to transition to more sustainable land management practices. Officials are also keen to develop new alternative protein food sectors, such as pulses and nuts. But the cracks in this approach are already beginning to show. Negative industry reactions to the subsidy changes suggest that sustainable land management is incompatible with animal agriculture’s current production levels.
Advocates say a more functional plan would acknowledge the need to reduce animal agriculture. It would also make provisions to assist small-scale farmers in transitioning out of the sector. Thorpe says that there appears to be very little existing policy addressing this.
The Vegan Society’s report titled “Alternatives to Commercial Grazing” outlines several potential options for transitioning farmers from raising animals to farming plants. The report focuses on marginal land, meaning land that isn’t ordinarily used for arable farming, and peatland. The alternatives include the restoration of peatland and nature recovery, which could provide an income stream in the form of carbon credits and conservation-linked funding. Growing alternate foodstuffs, like nuts, fruits, and pulses, or “wet agriculture” products like peat moss and reed, are further options.
Thorpe says it’s key that diversification must offer a main, not just supplementary, income for farmers. Government support should assist farmers with the “commercial viability” of new produce, especially if they’re competing with large-scale producers, says Thorpe.
He says a just transition for small farmers is imperative because they have “a really important role when it comes to carbon sequestration, water management, biodiversity” and the future environmental health of the country.
Commercial viability isn’t the only barrier stopping farmers from shifting away from animal agriculture. According to people close to the issue, a lack of support or resistance from within the farming sector can also be a factor.
This isn’t surprising. In a sector that’s already filled with uncertainties and pressures, Thorpe says veganism and a growing plant-based foods sector can be perceived as a “threat.”
Acknowledgment from the government that a reduction in animal agriculture is necessary could relieve some of the stigma transitioning farmers face. But if the affirmation came with a workable plan for a just transition, it could relieve some of the fears that make plant-based farming appear threatening in the first place.
For farmers who can’t imagine a life without animal husbandry, Refarm’d’s model shows they don’t necessarily have to. The organization works with farmers to transition from cow- to plant-based milk production and turn their farms into animal sanctuaries. Katja and Jay Wilde, whose remarkable story was the focus of Alex Lockwood’s short film “73 Cows,” are among the farmers who have made the switch.
A step further
The upcoming white paper also provides the government with an opportunity to put the brakes on factory farming. Compassion in World Farming says that these intensive farms house around 73 percent of farmed animals in the UK.
Factory farming is profoundly cruel. It’s also damaging to the natural world in a number of ways. Production of the feed for the animals on these farms is, for example, energy-intensive and responsible for the destruction of ecosystems around the world.
Thorpe explained that, as such, the UK is effectively “exporting” the environmental costs of these farms. He says that “we need to recognize the environmental impact of our farming system in other parts of the world and legislate with that in mind.”
Tracy is an environmental journalist based near London, UK. Her background is in creative writing, and she's currently a staff writer at The Canary and freelances elsewhere.