Red and processed meat harms our health and the planet – so why haven’t we seen any political action taken?

Have you ever wondered how policies get prioritised and implemented? We see a problem in society, come up with a solution, and implement it – right?

What’s the problem with red and processed meat, anyway?

We are currently facing two major crises affecting human existence – 1) unhealthy diets and poor nutrition are the leading contributors to the global burden of disease, which are mainly chronic and non-communicable diseases; and 2) the existential threat of climate change and the compromising of our ecosystems as a direct result of human activity. We know one of the biggest contributors to these problems is the nature and structure of our modern food systems – in particular, the industrial food systems where supply chains are long and extensive across the globe and the outputs are mostly unhealthy, ultra-processed and animal source foods. And within this picture, red and processed meat production and consumption has one of the largest impacts on human and planetary health.

Producing red and processed meat contributes to 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally and requires extensive natural resources like water and land use. Consuming red and processed meat is highly associated with major cancers such as colorectal and bowel cancers. So as a result, authoritative bodies like the International Panel for Climate Change and the World Health Organization are calling for change. They’ve suggested policies like meat taxes, production quotas, removing farming subsidies, and consumer labelling and education. So, the solution seems pretty simple, we just put in one of those policies and we’ll eventually be producing and consuming less red meat, right??

Producing red and processed meat contributes to 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally

Why aren’t we seeing action?

My PhD research is focused on the political economy of making policies to reduce red and processed meat production and consumption. Political economy is an examination of power and influence – that is;

  • Who has the power and who lacks it?
  • How is that power deployed and accrued?
  • And what does that mean for our food system, our health, and the planet?

So, who has power when it comes to making policies around meat?

This study revealed that a sizeable chunk of the power lies with the meat industry. The meat industry spans farming, processing, packing, distributing, marketing, and representative organisations. But in recent years, the market has become highly concentrated among a few big transnational corporations – including JBS, Tyson Foods, and Cargill. We refer to them as “Big Meat”. These companies can have an enormous influence on how and which policies get made. They are positioned well for this firstly, because of the size of these companies – last year, JBS made $51.7 billion US dollars. This means that for many countries, Big Meat provides huge economic benefits. It also means that they have significant influence towards government by lobbying and providing political donations.

Is it just about the money?

Red and processed meat have historically held significant economic, social, and cultural importance for societies around the globe. Whilst humans have been eating meat for millennia, the levels of consumption have increased dramatically over the past fifty years, and these levels have become normalised in an ideology known as “carnism”. Carnism contends that meat is a “natural, normal, and necessary” part of the diet, and thus poses a challenge to policy aimed at reduction. Whilst none of the reports published by authoritative organisations have called for elimination of meat from the diet, the proposals have been met with considerable contention in public discourse as it confronts the dietary status-quo.

The study also found that these ideas can be exploited for profit and to advance the agenda for commercial interests. The meat industry has funded a number of scientific studies both discredit and obscure, the evidence on the harms of meat on human and planetary health. This makes it is harder to garner public support for these policies as people are confused about the need for reducing consumption.

How do we go forward from here?

While it may seem a significant challenge, our study identified a number of avenues that may work as enablers to achieve meat reduction for healthy and sustainable food systems. Firstly, addressing the power asymmetry between the meat industry and other actors such as government and consumers should be a core component in policy work moving forward. This could be in the form of reduced agricultural subsidies, corporate oversight, and more equitable supply chains. Civil society groups might also choose to work in tandem with government to gain power over the meat industry and promote meat reduction – although this is likely to depend on a shift in the ideologies around meat (namely carnism). This is where the voice of the consumer has a part to play – those who advocate for their health and the health of the planet may be a force for change.

Katherine Sievert is a PhD candidate in the Food Policy and Public Health group at the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences (SENS). She also assists in research focused on political economy of ultraprocessed foods and infant formula. Kate’s PhD is examining the political economy of red and processed meat reduction for healthy and sustainable food systems.

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