Meat has become one of the most contentious areas of our food system with the sharp increase of veganism popularly portrayed as its arch nemesis and principal cause of its uncertain future. Many feel the debate would benefit from a little more light than heat. Henry Dimbleby noted during his speech to the Oxford Farming Conference on 8th January this year:

The tone of the debate [about meat] has been unpleasant. The name calling, and the framing of the argument in terms of goodies and baddies. But worse than the insults, it has become a dialogue of the deaf, with each side making their points increasingly trenchantly and no one listening. Which might be all right, if we weren’t discussing the fate of our children.”

Whilst the brickbats go back and forth, UK consumers – the vast majority of whom enjoy eating meat – are left on the horns of a dilemma: how to consume a healthy and enjoyable diet that includes meat without unwittingly trashing the planet?

Looking back

Britain is well known, even sometimes ridiculed, for its love of beef, but this nation of ‘rosbifs’ has an equally long attachment to plant-based diets. Whilst there are good grounds for Britain’s reputation as a meat-loving nation dating back to the Elizabethan’s carnivorous enthusiasm for all kinds of meat, the 17th century witnessed a lively debate – with surprisingly contemporary themes – between advocates for vegetable versus meat-based diets, described here by historian Anita Guerrini:

“By the end of the 17th century meat-eating, the basis of the English diet, had come into question. New medical theories questioned its healthiness; religious radicals rejected the violence inherent in its production and the class boundaries it implied; and a few moralists deplored the cruelty involved in any means of slaughter.”

A simple, local diet of mostly vegetables was seen by some as a central tenet of English identity and an intrinsic part of a more temperate, egalitarian and Christian society. The strength of advocacy for a vegetarian diet increased following the political and religious upheavals of the English Civil War, and vegetarianism retains its association with pacifism, socialism and reform to the present day. Moving into the 1800s, the first ever Vegetarian Society of the Western world was established here in the UK in 1847, and prior to that, the first modern organisation to abandon meat eating was the Bible Christian Church of Salford near Manchester, led by the wonderfully ironically named Reverend Cowherd.

Of all the meats, beef in particular has been a high-status food and a symbol of power, masculinity and virility. The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks established in 1735 as an elite club of the day’s movers and shakers (all male), took for its motto ‘beef and liberty’. In 1731, John Arbuthnot reflected the prevailing view when he wrote, “man is by his Frame as well as his Appetite a carnivorous Animal”. Meat’s status and centrality in our diet can be seen in the book whose title became a popular 1980’s truism ‘real men don’t eat quiche’. However, as Nick Fiddes argues in his book Meat / A Natural Symbol, meat’s status has always faced scrutiny as part of a continual civilizing process in society as it becomes more educated, affluent and urban. Fiddes, (a meat eater himself), argues that the post-war industrialisation of agriculture has given rise to a new ideology in which people’s voluntary choice not to eat meat can be regarded as a new progressive symbol of humanity living in harmony with nature.

By taking the long view of socio-cultural factors, it becomes clear that characterising people’s interest and adoption of a veg*n (vegan or vegetarian) diet as a faddish reaction to ethical, health and environmental concerns, is not only inaccurate and unhelpful in its polarising effect, but it is also a distraction from resolving the dilemma facing the vast majority of UK consumers who enjoy eating meat and are resistant to diets that require complete abstinence. They too are responsible citizens who want to ensure their lifestyles support good human and planetary health. In his book Environment and Food, Colin Sage shares Fiddes’ view that we should look to the industrialisation of agriculture to explain the increased interest in veg*nism:

“…the justified concern of industrial meat production of the past 50 years is not to make a moral claim for vegetarianism. We remain omnivores physiologically adapted to meat consumption; the question is whether the carnivorous appetites promoted by the food industry have distorted the balance in our food intake.”

Looking forward – a society on the move

The percentage of people who eat a veg*n diet in the UK is estimated at less than  5%. More significant is the rate of increase, with veganism described as the fastest growing lifestyle movement in the UK especially among young people aged 15-34. Data available from the website of the ‘Veganuary’, movement for a meatless January, started in 2014 records a rise in  participation from 12,000 to 250,000 in 2019, with an increase in participation of nearly 100,000 since 2018. Of those participating in Veganuary last year, 50% were aged 18-34. Increasing awareness of the ethics and environmental aspects of meat production and consumption is, in part, informing young people’s motivations to be good, ethical citizens of their community and planet, with nearly half of young adults giving environment and climate as the main reason for reducing meat consumption.

However, it is important not to extrapolate too far: cultural mores are deeply embedded, hard to shift, and change in actual behaviour often conflicts with expressed intention. Whilst 18-24 year-olds are the age group most likely to express an intention to reduce meat in their diets, they are also the group most likely to eat meat on a daily basis. The preponderance of young people shifting to diets based mainly, or wholly, on plants, who then revert to meat-eating, should not be surprising given the natural tendency in young adulthood to explore and experiment with a range of lifestyle choices. It was ever thus.

Whilst meat’s position at the pinnacle of the food hierarchy may be changing, meat-eating is a deeply embedded part of our food culture. Nearly 50% of people participating in ‘Veganuary’ were meat-eaters, and over half of all participants said they intended to return to eating meat after January. This suggests a sizeable proportion of the population want to continue eating meat whilst increasing their consumption of plant-based foods – fruits, vegetables and grains. This approach is closely aligned with a ‘flexitarian’ diet comprising much less but ethically and environmentally better meat, together with much more fruit, vegetables and grains. There is strong expert consensus that a flexitarian diet is the best way for western societies, including the UK, to achieve nutritional adequacy for minimal environmental impact and – importantly – maximum cultural acceptability

Resolving society’s dilemma: an opportunity for better meat consumption

The high levels of meat consumption in western societies over the past 50 years, should be correctly seen as an exception rather than the norm. From a purely human health perspective, most of us would benefit from reducing our meat consumption. The key question is what kind of meat should remain in our diet? Contrary to the prevailing view favouring chicken over beef and lamb, taking the long view may also help both farmer and consumer to anticipate and embrace the opportunity offered by meat produced from grazing ruminants, i.e. sheep and cattle. Unlike chickens and pigs, whose diet is almost wholly grain-based, ruminants have the unique ability to produce high-quality meat from grazing marginal grasslands, naturally abundant in the UK.

For UK beef production, a strategy to shift production away from unnatural and intensive industrialised grain-based systems to extensive grass-based systems will improve the nutritional profile of beef, and clearly positions beef (together with lamb), as a naturally produced, high-welfare meat, all of which goes with the grain of socio-cultural changes in our society. It also cuts any connection between UK beef production and the destruction of the world’s most vulnerable and vital ecosystems in the service of an unsustainable system of growing human-edible grain to feed to livestock in order to produce meat to feed to humans. An end to this practice, whether within or beyond the UK’s borders, should be a key objective of sustainable livestock systems.

Far from being novel, our Elizabethan antecedents would be quite at home on both sides of today’s meat versus veg debate, with two notable exceptions: first, the 20th century’s normalisation of meat eating which has taken its consumption across the Western world from the feast day to the every day; and secondly, the amplifying effect of the modern world’s digital platforms. Who knows if the quality and outcome of the debate would have been substantially different had the Reverend Cowherd and his contemporaries, been able to tweet?

Whilst there are always people to the extreme left and right of any argument, with the benefit of a little perspective, most of us, regardless of era or generation, find our point of balance somewhere in the middle.

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