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20th Oct 2020

Don't mention the meat: EU wary of food taboo

  • Vegetarians have a diet with a smaller carbon footprint and a smaller nitrogen footprint (Photo: William Murphy)

There is not enough appetite yet among European policymakers to tell Europeans they should eat less meat, but there are positive signs that society is becoming aware of the environmental impact of food, said former EU commissioner Janez Potocnik at a conference in the European Parliament on Tuesday (12 January).

Potocnik spoke at the presentation of a new report about how our food choices affect the European environment, particularly through nitrogen emissions.

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  • Potocnik (c): 'You can be in a leadership position but that's not guaranteeing you that you will do the things you want to do' (Photo: European Commission)

“You hear about carbon, but not so much about nitrogen which causes a whole host of pollution problems,” said professor Mark Sutton, one of the authors of the report Nitrogen on the Table.

Sutton and his co-authors calculated that between 6.5 million and 8 million tonnes of nitrogen is released into the environment by the European agricultural sector every year.

Nitrogen is mostly released as ammonia and nitrous oxide in the air and nitrate in ground and surface water. Too high levels of ammonia in the air cause health problems, while nitrous oxide is a powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gas.

An important question is where to put the effort to reduce nitrogen emissions.

“There are two basic ways to reduce nitrogen emissions from European agriculture,” said Potocnik, who was environment commissioner under Jose Manuel Barroso until 2014. The Slovenian is now co-chair of a UN body on international resources.

The first way is to reduce emissions per unit of product, i.e. per piece of meat, dairy product, or egg. The second one is to reduce consumption.

“The first one is the one which we are normally focussing on in our policy life. Why? It's easier. It's not contagious,” noted Potocnik.

“The second one is problematic, because it's addressing people's dietary choices and has major consequences also on the structure of European agriculture. That's why nobody is pretty much from the policy trying to address it,” he added.

But dietary changes would have great effects.

According to the authors, if all Europeans cut their meat consumption in half, this would result in 43 percent lower ammonia emissions, 31 percent lower nitrous oxide emissions, and 35 percent lower nitrate emissions - that is if the cuts are accompanied by a reduction in European livestock, and not a shift to exports.

“It is a very big step to make, but it would make a large difference”, said Henk Westhoek, a Dutch expert and another co-author .

Sustainable food

Calls for dietary changes, or indirect incentives to eat less meat, should not be expected to emerge from Brussels any time soon.

Even a relatively moderate EU policy paper on a more holistic view on food policy was stopped by defendants of the status quo.

Civil servants under Potocnik prepared a non-legislative strategy paper titled Building a Sustainable European Food System.

Finnish centre-right MEP Sirpa Pietikainen, also present, gave a definition of sustainable food: “It would be safe, healthy, environment-friendly, ethically produced, and affordable – and not this hipster-niche – and it would be delicious also.”

But the paper was never published.

“The sustainable food policy paper was ready to be adopted by the commission, but it was not adopted ... because for adoption by the commission you need the agreement of the commission,” said Potocnik, adding he was “not in a position” to have it published.

“You can be in a leadership position but that's not guaranteeing you that you will do the things you want to do. In the end you have governments at home, and commission here, and you need an agreement. If you don't have an agreement, the things are not adopted.”

Buried report

While Potocnik refused to name who had prevented the publication of the report, there are some indirect indicators.

When a group of MEPs, including Pietikainen, asked the Barroso commission to publish the paper, they received a reply that said the paper had never been promised and that such food policies are best prepared by the national governments and not at the EU level.

Tellingly, the letter was signed by Barroso and the agriculture and health commissioners, but not by Potocnik.

Even so, the buried report “would not include dietary changes, because it's so delicate a matter”, noted Potocnik.

“It was even clear that if we started working on that, we would not even get a green light to start,” he said.

However, Potocnik called on governments to adopt sustainable food as a “strategic priority”, simply because experts do not expect the world to sustain the projected population growth combined with an increase in meat consumption.

And despite his experiences in Brussels, Potocnik is optimistic that society will demand such food policies.

“The changes are in reality happening. With new facts … with more information which you get, the higher is your probability that you get more open-minded policymakers, and also pressure from the public.”

In several places in Europe, dietary behaviour is changing.

In 2015, Germany marked the fact that it counted 1 million vegans among its population – people who eat only plant-based food. The number of so-called 'flexitarians' - people eating less meat - is also on the rise.

And while many Europeans believe they need meat to have a tasty and filling meal, Sutton said that its excessive consumption is also down to force of habit.

He described an experiment done at a recent conference in Edinburgh, where the organisers had asked the caterer to reduce the portions of meat from 180 grammes to 90 grammes.

“Actually the chef went down to 60 grammes. At the end of the week we asked people what they thought. Ninety two percent of the people didn't miss out on the amount of meat served.”

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