Wednesday

30th Sep 2020

Europeans should eat less meat, but EU keeps silent

  • A substantial portion of the world's greenhouse gas emissions comes from meat production (Photo: Chris Isherwood)

Europeans should eat less meat to help fight climate change, but the EU is wary about saying it out loud.

Even at a debate on so-called sustainable diets on Wednesday (28 January), politicians and policymakers tiptoed around the dietary advice which many scientists say is unavoidable, focussing instead on reducing food waste and emphasizing the health side of the debate.

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“People are aware that the food they eat is an important factor affecting their health, but what is less well-known is the impact that producing and consuming food has on the world's resources”, Italian MEP Giovanni La Via said.

La Via is from the largest political group, the centre-right EPP, and leads the European Parliament's environment committee.

But when asked what the EU should do to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in the agriculture sector, he noted the EU should focus its emission reduction efforts on the transport and energy sectors. Agriculture is is just “one of the sectors” with high emissions, “but not the most important”.

“We have to reduce emissions, but we don't have have to reduce the use of meat for this reason only”, La Via told this website.

According to the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, between 10 and 12 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gases that were emitted between 2000 and 2010, came from agricultural production.

Other studies say the share of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture is even higher, and increasing.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation calculated that in 2011 the total emissions from agriculture were at “the highest level in history” and almost 9 percent higher than the average from 2000-2010.

Livestock that is bred for food and dairy products, produce large amounts of methane and nitrous oxide, greenhouse gases which trap more heat than carbon dioxide. The main source for methane is so-called enteric fermentation, a digestive process that occurs in cattle, goats and sheep.

“We have to have food in the climate change debate”, Duncan Williamson, food policy advisor for environmental NGO World Wide Fund for Nature, told the audience.

“If we want to keep climate change below two degrees Celsius, we have to talk about food and agriculture”, he added.

Scientists think that if global warming can be limited to under two degrees, the effects on the world may be manageable, and world leaders have committed to that two-degree ceiling.

"New technologies and changes in livestock production practices offer important means to reduce livestock emissions, but on their own cannot deliver the reductions needed to limit the rise in global temperatures to two degrees Celsius.

Individual and societal behavioural changes are essential to moderate consumption of meat and dairy products", a recent Chatham House paper concluded.

In other words: Europeans need to consume less meat and dairy products than they do now.

But promoting such a lifestyle change is not high on the EU's agenda.

Agricultural policy

Encouraging a less-meat and less-dairy diet would be contrary to the EU's current agricultural policy, said Anja Hazekamp, MEP for the Dutch Party for the Animals.

The historical context for the creation of the EU's agricultural policy was to deal with food shortages in the post-war period.

“Every year, almost half of the EU budget is spent on subsidies for agriculture and fishery. That system clashes with the idea that the products they are promoting, could actually be bad for the environment, health or climate”, Hazekamp told this website.

One of the place where the subsidies go, is in projects that promote European agricultural products, including meat and dairy.

“If you are used to promoting meat, fish and dairy, than it is very difficult to suddenly say that you were wrong”, said the Dutch MEP.

Where is the 'buried' report?

A few years ago, it looked like the commission would move towards developing a policy that addresses how to lower the environmental impact of food production.

It promised in 2011 that it would publish a report on sustainable food by 2013.

That report was ready to be published - a leaked version was seen by this website - and according to MEPs had been agreed by three European commissioners. But somehow the report was - in the words of WWF's Williamson - "buried".

“I heard it was already translated in 24 languages and is ready to be distributed,” said Hazekamp.

Hazekamp and 36 other MEPs wrote a letter to the commission, dated 3 October 2014, "urgently requesting" the publication of the paper, titled Building a Sustainable European Food System.

In their letter, the deputies suggested a reason of the delay.

“The European Commission should not shy away from sustainable food policies, out of fear of a eurosceptic backlash. Sustainable (food) policies are what the people want,” the letter said.

On the last day of that month - the final day Jose Manuel Barroso and his team were in office - a return letter was sent.

The letter was signed by Barroso and then commissioners Tonio Borg (health), and Dacian Ciolos (agriculture), but not by Janez Potocnik (environment) or Connie Hedegaard (climate action).

“The work programme of the commission for 2014 included … no ... commitment ... to present a communication on sustainable food”, the commissioners wrote.

“In line with the principle of subsidiarity, it has not been demonstrated that food sustainability cannot be sufficiently achieved by the member states acting on their own or that action at Union level is the only way to deal with this issue.”

One MEP present at the debate referred to the letter as a “lousy answer” which did not contain “sufficient explanation” on the delay.

At Wednesday's debate, one representative of the European Commission was present, and MEPs appealed to him to have the report published.

“I have noted the plea to the commission to come forward with our communication”, said Michael Flueh, of the commission's directorate-general for health and food safety.

But Flueh refrained from explaining why the publication had been delayed, and told this website he could not comment on the reasons behind the delay.

EU-wide food laws unlikely

Flueh did respond to a recommendation made by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, which organised the event Wednesday.

The foundation published a paper calling on the commission to “require member states to develop national policies on sustainable diet with country-specific targets, with the European commission in charge of monitoring and measuring periodically the progress towards these goals”.

“That sounds like we have to legislate. … We should be very cautious not to raise expectations that we will legislate, that we should immediately legislate in this area”, said Flueh.

Marco Peronaci, Italian deputy ambassador to the EU, indicated it was very unlikely his country would soon support a promotional campaign aimed at reducing meat consumption.

“We think we need to consider food in their multiple dimensions … avoiding discriminating actions towards specific foods, ingredients, or nutrients”, Peronaci said, adding that agriculture is “a way to promote social conditions, to foster youth employment and to allow more women empowerment”.

EU serves up soft proposals on food waste

In its Circular Economy strategy paper, published earlier this month, the EU Commission says nothing about a previously announced target to reduce food waste by 2025.

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