The UK government’s climate advisors have suggested making plant-based foods cheaper, more appealing, and more accessible to help people eat less meat and dairy.
A new report by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) and the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) reviews the role of behavioral science in designing effective climate policies in eight key areas. The top one is diet change to reduce consumption of high-carbon foods. An accompanying report makes recommendations for policymakers.
The CCC recommends a reduction of at least 20 percent of high carbon foods like beef, lamb, and dairy per person, up to a 50 percent shift away from animal foods towards plant-based products by 2050. It says that this will save 10 million tonnes of carbon emissions by 2035 and help meet UK climate targets.
Normalizing plant-based diets
The report identifies several factors that influence choices people make about what they eat. One concerns the price. Studies have found that fruit and vegetable consumption increases when their prices are reduced or people are offered other financial incentives if they buy them.
But the CCC report warns that while price reduction can boost fruit and vegetable intake, meat intake does not necessarily drop at the same time.
Other interventions can help to discourage people from buying high-carbon foods, particularly meat and dairy. The report cites the success of banning adverts for cigarettes in reducing rates of smoking. This tactic that could be replicated for animal products.
Such a measure will be implemented in the Dutch city of Haarlem in 2024, when adverts for meat will no longer be allowed in public spaces. But in the UK, campaigns by the semi-governmental Agriculture And Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) such as “We Eat Balanced” promote meat and dairy as part of a “sustainable” diet.
Another factor identified in the CCC report as influencing food choices is the “food environment.” This refers to the physical places where people make food choices, such as supermarkets. It also includes which foods are available, accessible, affordable and desirable in those places.
A 2021 report by Feedback found that most UK supermarkets are currently helping drive demand for animal products. They do this through price promotions on meat and how the supermarkets are arranged to prioritise animal products. But some retailers are promoting fruit and vegetable consumption, the report found.
Marketing and messaging around food is also important, according to the CCC report. Connecting plant-based foods “to indulgent language and positive emotions” can be effective. For instance, instead of describing vegan options as “meat-free” or “healthy” it could be more appealing to consumers to emphasize tastiness and enjoyableness.
The report urges the government to “engage in more political leadership by creating a vision for achieving a low-carbon, climate-resilient food system.”
But only days after the report was published, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was scrapping non-existent plans for a tax on meat. He accused the CCC for suggesting a meat tax. But the CCC has only suggested using pricing as a measure as one of a range of possible options. It has also encouraged the government to try a number of softer approaches first, which it has not done. Additionally, the CCC is an advisory body and does not itself make government policies.