Thursday, 26 November 2015

Hold on to your meat

Now it's meat-eating that has to be taxed and curtailed. Of course it is. What I find most striking about this article - from the Chatham House think tank - is how the rhetoric could come from any meddling single-issue pressure group in the last twenty years. Powerful industry, lack of awareness, bad for your health, change the default option, need for taxation, government intervention, blah, blah, blah.

Replace meat with tobacco or sugar or alcohol or gambling or fizzy drinks and it makes as much sense. There might as well be computer generated template for this kind of thing. It's not just that these people are evil and deluded, though they are both of those things, but they are so bloody dreary and unimaginative with it.

So why does meat remain off the policy agenda? Fear of backlash from the voting public and from a financially powerful industry has seen governments remain silent on the issue of unhealthy, unsustainable meat consumption. Unwilling to risk accusations of nanny state-ism, they find themselves trapped in a cycle of inertia. The assumption is that calling for dietary change is too politically sensitive, too practically difficult a policy avenue to pursue. But digging a little deeper into public opinion suggests that this assumption is unjustified.

Of course, government policies to shift meat-eating habits will not be easy. Low public awareness of the climate impact of livestock production presents a significant obstacle in the near term: campaigns that throw light on the complex and unfamiliar notion of livestock emissions cannot hope to carry the impact needed to overcome the influence of individual preference and habit, cultural customs and industry ‘nudges’ telling us to eat more meat. But there exist other levers on which governments may pull to begin a shift in attitudes and behaviour, not least the health implications of excessive meat-eating.

Policies will need to span the whole range of intervention. Soft measures to raise awareness and encourage behaviour change – through adjustments to public procurement standards, for example, and vegetarian default options in school and hospital canteens – will need to be accompanied by more interventionist measures such as taxation and subsidy reform.

But the political space is there. Public disengagement with the diet-climate relationship is not the result of active resistance; rather, it is the product of a lack of awareness that has been sustained through government inaction. Were governments to signal the urgent need for change and to initiate a public debate around the need for dietary change, this disengagement would likely dissipate.

Meat Control should not be dismissed as too laughable to happen. If the vegetarians, climate warriors and public health mob get together they would become the ultimate screeching pressure group.

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