UK Meat Consumption Drops By 17%, But Bigger Cut Needed to Meet Climate Goals

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Meat consumption in the UK has dropped by 17% within the last decade, new data from an Oxford study shows. While the cuts in red and processed meat intake were promising, the researchers warned that white meat and fish consumption was on the rise—and that much larger cuts are necessary to meet the 30% reduction laid out in the country’s sustainable food strategy earlier this year. 

New statistics from an Oxford University study reveals that meat intake has dropped by 17% in the UK over the past decade. The research, published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, showed that on average, overall meat consumption declined by 17 grams per person, per day across the country between 2008 and 2019. 

17% decline still falls short

The results, based on data from more than 15,000 participants, recorded the biggest reductions in the amount of red meat and processed meat consumed, down by 13.7 grams and 7 grams per person, per day, respectively. 

Largest declines were observed in red and processed meat consumption.

Figures show that the decline in red and processed meat was offset by the rise in white meats, such as chicken and fish, which grew by 3.2 grams over the past decade. The overall 17% reduction, say the researchers, will not be enough to help the country meet its national food strategy target of cutting meat intake by 30%. 

“Our results show a shift in the UK from red and processed meat towards white meat, which is consistent with health advice, but we are a long way from consuming a healthy sustainable diet,” said lead researcher Dr. Christina Stewart. 

“To put this in context, the National Food Strategy has called for a 30% reduction in total meat consumption in the next ten years, while other research has estimated that beef consumption alone in the UK needs to decrease by 89% to keep us within planetary boundaries.”

“It’s clear that we need a greater focus on changing dietary habits to reduce the amount of meat we eat if these targets are to be met,” Dr. Steward added. 

Read: Just 5 meat and dairy firms produce more emissions than big oil giants, report reveals

The UK national food strategy recommended an overall 30% cut in meat intake to boost public health and lower emissions.

Accelerating dietary change

Environmental campaigners argue that the report’s findings indicate that far more must be done to encourage a mass shift towards plant-based diets for the UK to meet its climate and health goals. 

“White meat consumption, which fuels deforestation and worsens the climate and nature emergencies, is also worryingly on the rise,” Greenpeace UK head of forests Anna Jones told The Independent. “We must reduce all meat consumption, which along with dairy farming is the biggest driver of global deforestation, not just red meat.”

Lead researcher Dr. Stewart explains that cuts to overall meat consumption could be made if individuals made simple switches, such as going meat-free just several times a week. She noted that the 30% target would only require the population to go meatless twice weekly. 

As part of the Oxford team’s ongoing research about sustainable dietary change, the scientists recommended individuals use simple strategies such as reducing the portion size of meat in recipes, and replacing it with plant-based proteins such as legumes, seeds and vegetables. 

Going meatless twice a week will help the UK reach its 30% meat reduction target.

But it will also require large food producers and retailers to help “nudge” the population towards healthier and planet-friendly choices, such as displaying the vegetarian options more prominently on restaurant menus, and widening the choices of plant-based meat and dairy substitutes in supermarkets. 

Oxford researchers have also designed environmental labels, which are now being trialed in collaboration with Foundation Earth. Food giants like Nestlé, Sainsbury’s and M&S are beginning to roll out front-of-pack traffic light scores to indicate the carbon footprint of products to help consumers make sustainable choices. 

The role of businesses in promoting dietary changes was outlined in the country’s national food strategy report, which wrote: “Supermarkets and chain restaurants sell us the majority of the meat we eat. They will therefore have a vital role to play in tempting us to eat more plants and a bit less meat.”

It added: “The retail industry, with its highly-developed powers of persuasion, can do a great deal to help consumers follow through on their good intentions.” 


All images courtesy of Unsplash.

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