Prime cuts: valuing the meat we eat

Finding common ground on which to build an environmentally and economically sustainable meat industry

The client

The Food Ethics Council for WWF-UK

The brief

To explore the scope of what ‘less but better’ meat consumption could mean, to identify potential win-wins, trade-offs and evidence gaps, and to make recommendations for next steps.

The idea behind ‘less but better’ is that eating less meat of ‘better’ quality could create benefits for the environment, help people eat more healthily, and even be positive for   the agricultural economy. Although ‘less but better meat’ is a concept often discussed, no one had really explored in any depth what it actually meant. This piece of research set out to fill that gap.

Our approach

At its heart this work was about reconciling the environmental challenge presented by meat production and consumption with the need for an economically and socially sustainable farming sector.

Working with the Food Ethics Council, our approach was firstly to map the dynamics and impacts of the UK meat sector, providing a baseline from which to understand what ‘better’ might mean. This included analysing the composition and scale of UK production and consumption and how this relates to the global meat sector using industry and government data. It also entailed drawing together a summary of the latest academic research on the impacts of the meat sector in terms of environment, human health and animal welfare.

The next step was to talk to a range of food system experts including academics from the fields of climate science, animal welfare, public health, social welfare and agriculture, representatives from the agricultural industry as well as representatives from the government Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). We asked them what ‘less but better’ meat meant to them.

The many different perspectives on ‘better’ meat consumption were then synthesized into nine key ways in which meat might be ‘better’. This included reduced environmental impacts and high levels of animal welfare, but also covered social impacts in terms of fairness and the ‘connectedness’ of producers and consumers, and economic impacts - recognising that better might entail more sustainable profitability for those engaged in livestock farming.

The result

The report highlighted that there are many complex trade offs that need to be considered in relation to trying to create a more sustainable meat production system in order to balance environmental, social and economic concerns.

However it also identified a number of areas of common ground to build upon when trying to identify what a better meat production system might look like. In particular stakeholders from all sides recognised the importance of treating meat as a precious item to be valued rather than a homogenous commodity. Recognition of these areas of common ground can be seen by the positive responses to the report by both industry and environmental networks.

In addition the report identified a number of priorities for further research including investigation into the market mechanisms and policies that would enable producers to move to a ‘less but better’ model while retaining financial sustainability.

The finished report can be seen here - Prime cuts: valuing the meat we eat

Media coverage

While the debate around less meat consumption remains a difficult one, the reception for this report was positive as can be seen by the media coverage below.

'Consumers urged to eat "less but better" meat'
- from Meat Info, the website for the Meat Trades Journal

'A taste for tripe'
- from Footprint, providing information on responsible business and sustainability for the foodservice supply chain

'Rise in quality meat could reduce agricultural water usage'
- from Edie (Environmental Data Interactive Exchange), the online resource for professionals responsible for the sustainability of their company or organisation

'WWF/ Food Ethics Council report Prime Cuts: valuing the meat we eat'
- from the Food Climate Research Network, a leading source of policy relevant, integrative knowledge into food systems and climate change