What’s the beef with beef?
“Beef is like a loaded gun, pointed at the living world.” So began George Monbiot’s response to the publication of the IPCC’s report on land use, which cited dietary change alongside 28 other interventions that could end the roughly one third of total greenhouse gas emissions that come from the food system.
The counterpoint, delivered on BBC News at Five by Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, blamed the BBC for attacking farmers and misrepresenting the IPCC. As she later tweeted, “I represent 50,000 farmers many of which are feeling isolated and terrorised and all because of your deeply [flawed] approach to tackling climate change.”
This is what a culture war looks like. It’s been stewing in the US and in France for a couple of years. It works by amplifying voices from the likes of Animal Rebellion, a vegan offshoot of Extinction Rebellion, calling for the “ending the industries of animal farming and fishing” by 2025; or, indeed, those of the many US cattlemen associations, trying to ban terms like ‘almond milk’ on the basis that consumers might be misled into thinking that almond milk, in fact, comes from a cow. Pretty soon the ‘debate’ consists of either hating the essence of rural Britain or hating the young people who will have to live with climate breakdown. It goes downhill from there.
Once the culture war starts, it steals the limelight. I should know. I was also on the BBC discussing the IPCC’s report last week, and my take was much less catchy than Monbiot’s or Minette’s: eat 30 per cent less meat by 2030, but make it better quality. Switch from eating meat seven days a week to just five. Also, grow big new forests, end peat extraction and grouse moor burning, and pay farmers to farm in ways that stores carbon in the soil.
This is all very reasonable, and Green Alliance has done the numbers to prove that these actions would get the UK on track to net zero carbon land use by 2040, while helping to support farmers’ livelihoods. But there’s no drama in it: no guns or sleepless nights. In fact, it’s not far off business as usual. UK consumption of beef has halved since 1975, and people over 45 account for 60-80 per cent of red meat purchases, suggesting further reduction is coming anyway.
The culture war will be lost by both sides
None of this matters in the culture war over meat. But here’s what might matter: a thought about who wins it.
It’s not likely to be those advocating ‘no meat’. Making the battleground of the meat war about quantity, and saying the correct quantity is none, doesn’t seem to be a winning strategy. In the US, the rate of vegetarianism and veganism is roughly flat but sales of plant-based meat alternatives are rising steeply. When you ask people why they buy plant-based foods, the top five reasons relate to health, taste and money. The identity politics of the culture war don’t come into it. But Americans are tribally aligned over vegetarianism and veganism, with liberals (in the American sense) being five times more likely to be vegetarian than conservatives or moderates. Adding tribalism to plant-based foods might put off two thirds of potential customers.
So does that mean British farmers will win a culture war that makes a meat heavy diet a tribal identifier? On the contrary: it is quality that sells UK meat, not quantity. It’s also tariffs. Brazilian beef is 50 per cent cheaper (and three times worse for the environment) than UK beef. Expanding demand, especially in the teeth of a no deal Brexit, probably means more cheap imports. We already buy a third of our beef from overseas. The winners will be the lower standard producers in Brazil, Argentina, New Zealand and the United States. Making the debate about ‘more’ rather than ‘better’ would be a Pyrrhic victory for UK farming.
Don’t fight the future
Let’s not fight this dumb war. But lest my views be dismissed as kumbayah-singing, soft headed conflict avoidance, let me lay out the actual battle for farming that lies ahead.
Plant-based (and later, cell-based) meat is coming to our shops fast. It will out compete UK milk and meat on cost because it’s far more efficient to produce: typically 70-95 per cent less water, land and carbon are used the production process. It is already competitive on flavour for cheaper products, and will be marketed brilliantly, as Burger King’s genius video for its plant-based Whopper demonstrates. It might even be healthier.
How should UK farming respond? By starting a just transition for livestock farmers. Here’s my take on what this would take. First, embrace ‘less but better’ and position high quality meat produced to high standards as an affordable luxury. Focus on the foods that plant-based competitors can’t, particularly protected products like Aberdeen Angus steak or Stilton cheese. Demand – as environmentalists have – that the public pays a fair price to farmers for the public goods they provide, like carbon sequestration and nature restoration. Decarbonise beef so it is more carbon competitive: our research shows farmers can roughly halve emissions from cows via selective breeding and a seaweed-based feed. In short, sell the low carbon, high quality, nature friendly foods of the future. Win the culture war by avoiding the need to fight it in the first place.