By Jon Henley, Sam Jones, Angela Giuffrida and Philip Oltermann
A row over meat consumption in Spain over the last month is just the most recent eruption of the debate all over Europe, as the continent grapples with making its famous cuisines more sustainable.
Food is inextricably intertwined with national identity for countries in continental Europe; a good steak, with perfect frites stacked beside it; a plate of wafer thin carpaccio, drizzled with dressing or plain old olive oil; wurst, served with good mustard; jamón ibérico laced with creamy white fat.
Europeans love their meat, and they eat a lot of it. About 1.5kg a week is consumed by the average citizen of the EU27 – that’s twice the global average.
But it is also clear that if there is to be any hope of reducing the impact of global heating, that consumption level will have to fall rapidly. Greenpeace estimates that it will need to drop by 70% by the end of the decade, and down to 300g by 2050. That translates (since not all the meat that leaves slaughterhouses ends up being either sold or eaten) to each European actually eating, per week, a quantity of meat equivalent to about two good-sized hamburgers.
The response to this news? Unenthusiastic, to say the least. Politically, balancing the priorities of environmental action against the clout of often powerful farming lobbies and the expectations of populations accustomed to consuming large quantities of unrealistically cheap meat looks nearly impossible.
In Spain, for example, which holds the dubious honour of being the EU member state with the highest per capita meat supply in the bloc (more than 100kg per person, per year) the consumer affairs minister, Alberto Garzón, was engulfed in a national row last July after calling on his compatriots to eat less meat for the sake of the environment and of their own bodies. “Our health and the health of our families is at stake,” he said. “Eating too much meat is bad for our health, and for the planet.”
Within hours, he had been slapped down not just by the agriculture minister, but by the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez. Asked what he made of Garzón’s plea, Sánchez observed: “Speaking personally, a medium-rare steak is hard to beat.”
There is evidence that many Europeans are taking the issue seriously. One recent survey showed almost half (46%) of European consumers are now eating less meat than they once did, while 40% are planning on reducing their meat consumption in the future.
The EU-backed study, of more than 7,500 people in 10 European countries, found a third actively sought to minimise their meat consumption – with 73% of that group saying they had “substantially” reduced their meat intake over the past months.
But in its latest document, the European Commission suggests that despite clear and growing public awareness of the importance of sustainability, EU meat consumption per capita, left to its own devices, is likely to fall by little more than 3kg a year.
Government intervention, then, will be essential, but, judging by Spain’s example, difficult. Garzón again told the Guardian in December that people had to reduce their meat consumption, and contrasted meat from traditional, extensive farming with that produced on intensive megafarms, but parts of Garzón’s interview were seized on by the conservative People’s party and the far-right Vox party, who have demanded he resign for what they portray as an unforgivable attack on Spain’s important meat industry and the quality of its exports.
The consumer affairs minister has stuck by his words, accusing “the lobby of certain big companies which promote polluting megafarms” of deliberately distorting what he said. His comments, moreover, do not differ wildly from official government policy. The ministry for ecological transition wants extensive production systems promoted, and well-adapted native breeds used more. The agriculture minister has praised small family farms, and some regional governments have already acted to limit intensive farming.
In Germany, traditionally among the EU’s biggest consumers of animal-based products per capita, meat-eating has declined steadily over the last two decades, but here too the politics are sensitive.
The Green party, part of the new three-party coalition with the centre-left SPD and the liberal FDP, might have been expected to throw itself into accelerating the falling trend, but has so far held back.
The hesitancy comes from painful political experience. Germany’s Greens have suffered in recent years from being seen as a Verbotspartei, intent on banning the joys of life. A 2013 “veggie day” initiative for meat-free days at state-subsidised canteens saw the tabloid Bild complain that “the Greens want to take our meat away”.
Instead, the environmental party has used its first weeks in power to initiate a less politically exposing campaign against junk meat sold for junk prices. The new agriculture minister, Cem Özdemir, told Bild Germans were losing out because food quality and food prices were too low.
Junk prices, often imposed by all-powerful supermarket chains, he said, “drive farms to ruin, prevent animal welfare, promote species extinction and burden the climate. I want to change that.” The price of food should, he said, echoing the findings of a commission set up by the previous government, reflect the “ecological truth” and consumers must get used to paying a fair price for better quality.
But this approach, too, is far from universally popular: the new government’s attack on cheap meat was criticised by the Paritätische Gesamtverband, an umbrella group for Germany’s social welfare organisations, which argues higher food prices must be accompanied by compensation payments for those on low incomes.
And in Italy, the environment minister, Roberto Cingolani, triggered a fiery debate last year by saying excessive meat consumption was harmful to health and the environment, adding that encouraging Italians to eat less meat would be central to his plans.
“Changing our diet will have the combined benefit of improving public health, decreasing water use and producing less CO2,” Cingolani said. Farmers hit back instantly, saying annual meat consumption per capita in Italy is among the lowest in Europe and meat was an important part of a balanced diet.
Activists including Luca Mercalli, a well-known metorologist, are keeping the debate alive, arguing that better quality meat produced closer to home and consumed in smaller quantities would make a significant difference to the environment.
“A proportion of Italians are sensitive to the topic and have changed their diets, either due to concerns about the climate or dietary motives,” Mercalli said. “The problem in Italy is the debate often turns toxic, with vegetarians becoming very judgmental of meat-eaters, which in turn alienates 90% of the population.”
The onus should be on the government to provide clearer information, he said. “The message should be: eat less meat, but when you do, buy locally produced meat that is more sustainable. Even if you pay more, eating better quality meat once a week is far better than eating a cheap hamburger every day.”
French meat consumption has also been falling steadily, with surveys suggesting half the population has reduced their meat consumption over the past three years and that 30% would like to continue doing so over the next three. And yet howls of outrage greeted the launch of France’s national low-carbon strategy, adopted in 2020, which aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture – which represent 20% of the country’s total, with fully 80% generated by livestock farming – by 19% by 2030 and 46% by 2050.
EU countries that have tried to implement concrete meat reduction policies have faced instant backlashes. The Danish government was forced in 2020 to reverse a ban on state canteens serving meat for two days every week after trade unions and the food industry objected, and the government has now instead switched its focus to boosting non-meat food production, approving a climate agreement that features the EU’s largest investment in plant-based research and development, including an annual fund to support the transition to a nationwide dietary shift. In the Netherlands, in an attempt to prioritise tackling the major environmental issues long caused by its intensive pig and other farms, the new government features a minister for nature and nitrogen affairs, Christianne van der Wal-Zeggelink.
And all of this is no less true for the European Commission itself, struggling with the incompatibility of ambitious carbon emission reduction plans and the vast common agricultural policy subsidies that account for nearly a third of the EU’s budget. Greenpeace has broken down the numbers and calculates that a fifth of the EU’s entire budget is spent on livestock.
As recently as 2020, the EU was still spending money to promote meat eating with a controversial and frankly slightly mad ad campaign exhorting people to become Beefatarians. “If the sound of beef sizzling on the grill brings tears to your eyes, you’re a real Beefatarian,” coos the ad.
Confused? It’s only going to get worse.
Credit: The Guardian