Last month Henry Dimbleby and his team published part two of the National Food Strategy. Its stated ambition is to be a “comprehensive plan for transforming the food system” but, following its release, many of the headlines focused on the proposals around salt and sugar taxes. One element that received far less attention, however, actually holds huge significance: the need to transition to more sustainable proteins.
The UK cannot sustain its current appetite for meat if it’s to achieve its targets related to climate change and biodiversity. This means changing how we produce and consume protein is essential. Scaling alternative proteins, and getting ahead in this area of rapid growth, will also present an opportunity for the UK to show global leadership in the run-up to COP26.
Despite being one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, food systems have typically been neglected in conversations about climate policy. Even if we halt emissions from fossil fuels immediately, current trends in global food systems would prevent us from limiting warming to 1.5°Celsius, let alone 2°. Simply put, we cannot tackle the climate emergency or meet net zero without changing what we eat and how we produce it.
Our love of meat is a major part of this story. Livestock and dairy are carbon intensive – by some estimates, emissions from animal proteins are between 10 and 50 times higher than those from plant-based foods. The National Food Strategy report’s suggestion for a 30 per cent reduction in meat consumption over the next decade is therefore bold, but necessary.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean having to drastically change our diets or replacing traditional meat entirely. It does, however, call for an investment in technologies that give us alternative options, and which are predicted by studies to be better for the environment and our health.
To scale alternative proteins (i.e. plant-based or lab-grown alternatives to meat), the report recommends:
£50 million to help build, fund and support an innovation cluster where scientists and entrepreneurs can develop, test and scale up new alternative proteins
Establishing a £500 million fund, managed by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), to invest in innovation for healthy and sustainable diets, including £75 million for alternative proteins
These policies would be a step in the right direction. Transforming how we produce and consume protein is one of the most impactful actions we can take to improve the sustainability of our food system, and investment is a key part of achieving this. Livestock, despite occupying 85 per cent of the UK’s agricultural land, provides less than a third of the country’s calories. A recent study commissioned by the Good Food Institute found that cultivated (cell-based) pork could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 52 per cent, while lab-grown beef could cut emissions by up to 92 per cent.
But investment alone will not be enough. The report fails to mention regulation of novel proteins – one of the barriers that innovators in the space commonly cite. This should form part of the UK’s innovation strategy, where the government has stated its plans to consult on how regulation can ensure the country is positioned to extract the best value from innovation.
Novel proteins is one area in which the government needs to set out a clear regulatory pathway that will attract innovators and makes it easier for companies to come to market. It will also be important to work with other countries to align regulation and remove barriers to facilitate swift access to multiple markets.
Getting ahead of the curve will be important as the UK looks to maintain competitive advantage post-Brexit and realise its stated ambition to be at the forefront of global innovation. Globally, the sector is growing, and countries such as Singapore and Israel are already leading in the field of alternative-protein technologies, having invested significantly.
Competition aside, the UK’s alternative-protein industry has the potential to create up to 10,000 new manufacturing jobs as well as support in the retention of 6,500 farming jobs, as the report points out. Alternative proteins are exactly the type of transformational technology that the UK should be intent on leading, capturing a good slice of the market through R&D investment – and by supporting entrepreneurs and scientists.
The government must now respond to the strategy with a white paper within six months, but will it take the recommendations onboard?
Meat consumption is a politically sensitive topic. In 2018, former climate minister Claire Perry was quoted as saying that it is not the government’s job to advise people on a climate-friendly diet. Although she was criticised by some for failing to show leadership on the issue, the National Food Strategy underlines that the public isn’t likely to support a meat tax. This finding builds on the results of the Climate Assembly UK report, which found that people were more in favour of voluntary measures to reduce meat consumption.
The report is politically pragmatic in this regard, stating: “we have to recognise how people actually behave, rather than just wishing they would behave differently.” And for now, it is right to focus on scaling these technologies, in combination with suggested policies to increase efficiency and “nudge” people away from meat consumption.
Transforming our food systems is not an impossible task; indeed, the process offers a chance to introduce bold and practical policies that will be good for our health, planet and economy. In November, the UK hosts COP26. Perfect timing, then, to showcase the potential of sustainable proteins and cultured meats by adopting bold and radical leadership of this sector.