With or without a meat tax, a new vision for livestock farming is needed

Have you stopped eating meat for some meals or started a plant-based diet? If so, you are part of a growing trend. Two weeks ago, a leaked draft of the forthcoming National Food Strategy included the suggestion that a meat tax might be needed in the future to help it along, to cut UK carbon emissions and improve people’s health. Meat taxes have been proposed before, and were rejected by the prime minister. But other developments are already driving changes in our diets. One way or another we will be eating less meat in future and a new vision for an economically and environmentally sustainable livestock sector is needed.

Consumer trends and new technologies are affecting the industry
In the past few years a lot of attention has been given to a growth in the availability and popularity of reduced meat and plant-based diets. A recent Green Alliance survey found that 31 per cent of respondents had already changed their diet to help tackle climate change. And this is not a new trend. According to the Climate Change Committee, average per person consumption of fresh meat fell by 23 per cent and dairy consumption fell by 16 per cent between 2000 and 2018.

While the consumption of processed meat has remained steady, this may not be the case forever. The Eating Better Alliance’s recent ready meal survey found that, only since 2018, there has been a 50 per cent increase in the range of vegetarian and plant-based ready meals on offer. Perhaps more importantly, plant-based ready meals are now cheaper than meat equivalents at seven out of ten supermarkets.

And this is just the start. What could really shift the dial for the meat and dairy industry are developments in ‘lab grown’ alternatives. It is now possible to use micro-organisms to produce the same proteins we currently derive from animal products, or to use a set of starter cells from an animal to ‘grow’ meat without needing to keep livestock. While this technology is relatively new and expensive, it is predicted that it will start to undercut traditional animal agriculture on price for some products within this decade. These technological advances could drive changes in what we eat faster and further than any prospective meat tax would.

There are reasons for optimism
Unsurprisingly there has been resistance to these developments from many in the farming industry. And it’s not just farmers who are concerned about the impacts of lab grown meat. When we surveyed 38 NGOs, researchers and farming groups, their support for lab grown products on a scale of 1 to 10 dropped from an average of 7.3 to 3.7 if farmers’ livelihoods were not to be  protected. Soberingly, the majority thought it unlikely that threats to farmers’ livelihoods would be overcome.

So this is the big challenge: how to create profitable business models for livestock farmers in a future where there is less demand for their products? Answering this will take research, imagination, leadership and honest debate. While we don’t have the answers now, there are reasons to be more optimistic than our survey might suggest.

Much livestock farming in the UK is already unprofitable. This is particularly the case in the uplands where many farms only survive because of subsidy payments and diversification. As has been outlined previously on this blog, many of these farms are actually losing money on every animal they produce due to the cost of inputs of feed and medicine when livestock numbers exceed what the land can support. Although it may seem counterintuitive, reducing stocking numbers can be a route to greater viability and even profitability. Add payments for the environmental improvements enabled by lower stocking densities, which could include payments from private beneficiaries of environmental services, and a positive way forward for some livestock farmers starts to look hopeful.

The Environment Secretary George Eustice gave a clue to how more productive lowland farms could be supported in his speech at the Groundswell regenerative farming show. He talked about how the new Environmental Land Management schemes will provide incentives for more mixed farming, with livestock being integrated into arable rotations to improve soil quality and reduce the need for artificial fertiliser. Again, this might point to a future with fewer large, intensive livestock farms relying on grain and soy for feed, and more farms with smaller herds integrated into the landscape, providing not just food but the other environmental services that come from having healthier soil, like water and carbon storage.

A shared vision for future farming is needed
Of course, these examples apply to beef and sheep, so there are more questions around how pig, poultry and dairy businesses will cope with falling demand. And there will need to be changes in the food system to support new business models, including strong markets for quality fresh produce and more local supply chains that deliver more of the product value back to the farmer.

Livestock farming will always have a role, but it will have to evolve. Ultimately, this transition will be driven by forward looking farmers. It will need strong policy support and political leadership. Change is on the horizon, whether we like it or not, so we should start developing a shared vision for what a thriving livestock farming sector will look like in a healthy, low carbon future.

2 comments

  • Caroline Lucas MP suggested this might be an idea and I wouldn’t dispute that action is needed to reduce the impact of conventional livestock by cutting numbers, impact per head or both. Yet this idea and cutting the demand for such meat (there are various other sources including less conventional livestock and edible pest / culled species) are both utterly misguided as shown by the 2007 Shetland cull and waste of 5000 healthy sheep on economic grounds. Suppose cattle numbers should be cut though .

    That needs major investment up front, appropriate targeting, a commitment to conservation, alternatives to by-products (especially manure) with existing stocks of beef and dairy eaten anyway. If a cull were required (or just occurred) then the resulting beef and offal supplies should be eaten too. There is no excuse for doing the wrong thing for the right reason or thinking our own preferences (as opposed to say food allergies) are more important than ensuring secure food supplies. Remember that crops can fail badly and that gluts don’t work in free markets while the belief that the UK can always import food could misfire very badly.

  • Don’t even need to tax meat when it’s being so heavily subsidised as it is!

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