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exaggerated veggie claims risk a diet culture war

Friday 17 June 2022 6:30 am

Some plant-based companies have made outlandish claims about the impact of swapping out meat. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Remember being told an apple a day keeps the doctor away? Not so simple, it turns out, as the government discovered with its new Food Strategy, with its plans to halve childhood obesity and make farming in the UK more resilient.

The strategy follows an independent review by Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of restaurant chain Leon. His opinion of him on the government’s master plan? “It’s not really a strategy”, he plainly said on Monday. Dimbleby condemned the fact the government abandoned several of his proposals, including free school meals for kids on universal credit, and a commitment to cut meat and dairy consumption by 30 per cent.

George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, was promptly sent on the airwaves to defend the review. Full of self-assurance, I have explained how the government is not interested in reading the public on what to eat, even after calorie counts were slapped on menus. When asked whether the government doesn’t want people to eat less meat, he replied “that’s right”.

His answer sheds a light on the cracks in the Conservative Party. What we see is a vulnerable Cabinet scared of looking like they’re pushing the case for a “nanny state”. The nuance required to understand what’s plaguing our food system has been lost.

No one wants a 1984-style government punishing people for what they eat; there’s no need to call for a “red meat tax” that could easily backfire causing socioeconomic hardship. Dimbleby simply wanted the government to acknowledge a basic truth: if we don’t decrease our consumption of meat, we hurt the planet – and our health. A matter-of-fact statement risks being turned into the next culture war.

Beef and lamb in particular cause high methane emissions, and excessive consumption of red meat can lead to diabetes and heart diseases. Fast-food burgers and hot dogs are a huge part of the junk food cycle described by Dimbleby. In the UK, they’re hugely popular, for obvious reasons.

The private sector has understood something’s got to change before the government did. Some of the best researchers are looking at how to develop healthy and tasty meat in labs for new companies like Ivy Farms. This also aims to address another objective of the Food Strategy: making the UK more self-sufficient.

Then there’s the world of plant-based alternatives. These businesses are growing quickly because they have understood who their target customers are: not necessarily vegetarians or vegans, but people interested in trying alternatives while keeping meat as part of their diet. “I don’t identify with the idea that this is a binary choice – either you’re vegetarian or vegan or you’re not. It shows normal people can do it,” says Jonathan Petrides, chief executive officer of allplants, a plant-powered food company.

It seems disingenuous to expect a country that prides itself on roast lamb on a Sunday to suddenly turn vegetarian. It’s more likely that partially plant-based eating will become the backbone of a new British diet. But, with the eagerness of this industry to “do good”, inflated claims about saving the world with a veggie burger do more harm than good, making already skeptical Britons roll their eyes and steer clear of the meat alternatives. Inflated figures are as counterproductive as excessive intervention from government, which risks fueling a war between the “careless meat lovers” and the “angry vegans”.

We’re bombarded with statements such as “going meat-free one day a week” offsets “not driving for one month”. In an interview with Petrides, I have claimed 85 per cent of greenhouse gases come from meat. Instead, it’s roughly 60 per cent, according to a study published in Nature Food, a scientific journal. He also suggested that 70 per cent of the world’s supply of fresh water was used up by meat and dairy products. The entire agriculture industry uses up those resources, but that includes the naturally vegan friendly option: grain.

The numbers are already high. But an information war which inflates them risks creating a division over what we eat rather than working as the market should, nudging people in the right direction with a cheaper variety of products.

People in the UK are already eating less meat than we used to. In the last decade, it has fallen by 17 per cent, according to a study published in the journal the Lancet Planetary Health. It’s not Dimbleby’s 30 per cent. But it’s a significant shift with limited intervention.

The government, for their part, has chosen a bizarre tactic of shaming people on calorie counts rather than encouraging this existing shift in consumer behaviour. But that’s little excuse for the industry to sow misinformation themselves. It’s only our health that’s at stake.

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