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New report encourages caterers towards ‘less but better meat’

12th Jun 2024 - 04:00
A new report attempts to provide caterers and commercial food buyers with a definition of ‘better meat’ as they grapple with the need to achieve Net Zero goals, reports David Foad.

The idea of ‘less but better meat’ has been around for a while. Indeed, public sector caterers embraced the slogan back in 2020 with the aim of reducing the carbon footprint of their menus, encouraging healthier eating choices, and rising to the challenge of meeting rising demand for more plant-based meal options.

Everyone has an idea in their mind about what they mean by ‘better meat’. For some it means locally-raised or at least British, for others the emphasis is on the treatment and welfare of the animals, while some see it as clarion call to ‘go organic’.

I suspect most of us imagine some sort of mix of all three elements, with the added rider that it must still be sensibly priced to match the restricted budgets public sector caterers have to operate with. But nowhere was there an attempt made to properly define what the term ‘better meat’ meant.

Now the World Resources Institute (WRI) has published a report that gets to grips with the issue. It is called ‘Towards Better Meat - Aligning meat sourcing strategies with corporate climate and sustainability goals’.

It takes a practical look at meat consumption globally, sensibly accepts that many people are not going to stop eating meat in the short-to-medium term, and then sets out to show how farmers, caterers, and consumers can adopt strategies to try to balance the environmental impact of meat consumption.

Ani Dasgupta, president and chief executive of the WRI, says: “Today, meat and dairy production contributes roughly two-thirds of all emissions from agriculture and accounts for more than three-quarters of agricultural land use.

“Yet, the actual consumption of these animal-based products is extremely uneven across the world, with the highest consumption among populations in the Global North. Without a significant change in how people in these high-consuming countries eat, global climate targets will remain out of reach.

“The striking role of meat – particularly beef and lamb – in climate change makes clear that the world must shift toward a more plant-based diet. This will not happen overnight. In fact, many people who enjoy meat may never fully eliminate it from their plates.

“Luckily, a more climate friendly diet does not require everyone to become vegan or vegetarian. The reality is that even as restaurants, retailers, catering companies and other food providers work to help consumers choose lower-carbon foods, they will also continue to sell at least some meat.

“Many of those companies are rightly asking: If my company does source meat, how can it be sourced in a way that is better for the animals that are being consumed, the people who are being served, the natural resources and land that are used for production, and the climate that we are actively harming? What does ‘better meat’ mean?

“Companies aiming to achieve multiple sustainability goals related to the food they purchase and serve are often faced with trade-offs between those goals.

“They are forced to weigh sometimes contradictory measures – such as sourcing meat from higher-welfare production systems that use more land, but also ensuring more efficient use of earth’s finite land and avoiding additional agricultural encroachment on forests.

“With careful planning, it is possible to source higher welfare meat and dairy while still lowering food-related emissions and land use overall. At the same time, in cases where sourcing so-called ‘better meat’ is likely to lead to higher environmental impacts, strategies to source ‘less meat’ need to become strategies to source ‘even less meat’,” he said.

“To achieve their sustainability goals, food providers need robust, evidence-based information to optimise their meat sourcing strategies. Assessing the environmental and climate impacts of different food production systems, practices, and technologies with supply chain partners – and improving those impacts – is nuanced and complex work.

“As we move forward, companies and experts must work together even more closely to meaningfully shift diets and production practices to create a better world for people, nature, and climate.”

His comments come against a backdrop in which land-based animal agriculture, including meat and dairy production, significantly impacts the environment. It accounts for over three-quarters of agricultural land use, 11%–20% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and more than 30% of global methane emissions.

The sector is known to be a major driver of deforestation and land-use change. With the global population projected to reach 10bn by 2050, shifting high-meat diets toward plant-based foods and reducing the environmental impact of meat production are crucial for food security and achieving climate targets.

The WRI report concludes that the large land footprint of agriculture must be reduced to allow for large-scale ecosystem restoration. Here are some key points it makes:

Dietary Shifts

Dietary shifts towards plant-based foods are particularly relevant in the Global North, where meat consumption per capita is high. In regions like North America and Europe, where affordable substitutes for animal protein are widely available, reducing meat consumption can significantly lower environmental impacts. In contrast, populations in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa might benefit from increased animal-based food consumption to improve nutrition.

Role of Retailers and Caterers

Retailers, manufacturers, and caterers heavily influence consumer choices and shape the food environment. They often have high Scope 3 GHG emissions linked to their supply chains. By setting science-based GHG reduction targets in line with the Paris Agreement, they can play a significant role in promoting sustainable food practices.

‘Better Meat’ and Its Trade-Offs

The concept of ‘better meat’ has gained traction as a way to describe more sustainable forms of terrestrial animal agriculture. However, there is no clear, universally agreed definition of ‘better meat’, and the term can involve trade-offs.

It can refer to various attributes, including better environmental performance (climate, land, water use, biodiversity, soils), social and ethical performance (animal welfare, local sourcing, livelihoods, public health), and economic performance (quality, profitability). It is often associated with production systems such as organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed, and regenerative agriculture.

Environmental Impacts of Meat and Dairy Production

Meat and dairy production, especially ruminant meats like beef and lamb, are resource-intensive compared to plant-based proteins. Beef production, for example, emits an average of 310kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per kg of protein, while poultry emits 45kg CO2e, and pulses emit 6kg CO2e. The high resource use of animal-based foods is due to the animals’ need to convert calories and protein in feeds into human-edible calories and protein.

Challenges with ‘Better Meat’

Shifting to production systems associated with ‘better meat’ often results in higher environmental impacts per kilogram of protein. Alternative systems like organic, grass-fed, and free-range frequently lead to higher GHG emissions and require more land than conventional systems. These increased impacts are significant from both climate and biodiversity perspectives, as agricultural land expansion is the leading driver of deforestation.

Strategies for GHG Reduction in Meat Production

Several strategies exist to reduce GHG emissions from meat production, particularly beef. These include improving efficiency and productivity, reducing enteric methane emissions through better feeds and feed additives, improving manure management, and stabilising and sequestering carbon in vegetation and soils on pasturelands. However, increasing soil carbon stocks as a GHG mitigation strategy is complex and should be part of a broader suite of mitigation options.

Balancing Animal Welfare and Environmental Goals

Animal welfare is a critical consideration in sourcing meat, but improvements in animal welfare can lead to higher environmental impacts. For example, producing a ton of protein requires slaughtering many more chickens than cows, leading to ethical trade-offs. Similarly, production systems that improve animal welfare, such as grass-fed or free-range, often have higher land footprints and resource use. Balancing these goals requires careful planning.

Implementing ‘Less and Better Meat’ Strategies

If ‘better meat’ leads to higher resource use per kilogram of protein, companies must focus on ‘even less meat’ to meet environmental targets. Reducing beef and lamb purchasing, which have high emissions and land use, can create climate ‘space’ to source higher-welfare systems for other proteins, like cage-free eggs and organic chicken. This strategy enables companies to reduce emissions and improve animal welfare while avoiding increased negative impacts on water use, quality, and soil health.

Shifting to Plant-Based Foods

Shifting diets toward plant-based foods offers a win-win for climate, nature, and animal welfare. Traditional plant-based foods, such as pulses and soy, and alternative proteins, like plant-based meat, have lower carbon footprints and environmental impacts compared to animal proteins. Companies can use these shifts to meet sustainability goals without the trade-offs associated with shifting between or within animal products.

Future Work and Data Needs

Improving the availability and quality of emissions data and other ‘better meat’ attributes is essential. This includes metrics for soil health, on-farm biodiversity, and agricultural livelihoods, as well as data on fish and seafood production. Companies need guidance on navigating certifications and labelling schemes to identify products with improved sustainability attributes.

The WRI report concludes with the message that incorporating plant-based foods into diets and carefully balancing meat sourcing strategies can help caterers meet climate and nature goals while improving animal welfare. Despite the complexities and trade-offs, it is possible to achieve sustainability targets by shifting towards more sustainable food systems.

Written by
David Foad