Meat feast: Is it time to change the way we eat meat?

Global meat production takes up much of the planet’s agricultural land and resources, and some food experts argue it is time to stop eating meat regularly and save it for special occasions.

In ancient times, slaughtering an animal for a feast was a ritual that celebrated the animal’s life and death, and could feed people for a week.

In many countries, meat remains a treat, but not in Britain where the typical diet is made up of 70% meat and dairy, according to World Wildlife Fund research.

There is a food divide, says Dr Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network – the rich world where “high income countries have access in a rich world to a range of foods” versus ” poor countries which face a lack of dietary diversity, more based on tubers, and critically no micronutrients”.

She says: “Why do we eat what we eat? It’s the food available, the food we have access to, and food knowledge that influence our decisions.

“We need to consume less meat – and poor countries need sustainable agri-nutritional pathways (as livestock contributes to the livelihoods of the poor).”

With seven billion people in the world, nearly one billion people are undernourished or starving according to the World Health Organisation, despite the world producing enough food to feed the human population twice over.

The Vegan Society says a third of grain grown is fed to farm animals, and 25% of the world’s land surface is given over to grazing more than 1.25 billion cattle.

Food writer Alex Renton has just written Planet Carnivore. He says on Radio 4′s Food Programme this kind of production and consumption is unsustainable for the future.

“We can feed 9bn people in 2050, but we can’t feed them all with the current amount of animal products that the ‘rich’ world uses at the moment,” he says.

“That leaves us with a key problem – we have to either tell people not to eat meat any longer, and there is no mechanism for doing that, or we have to develop better ways of growing and delivering animal products that they are not so expensive on resources.”

Could mainstream society returning to a feasting sensibility be the answer?

The over-production and over-consumption of meat is a very old problem, which was first raised in the 18th Century, says Professor Tim Lang, a former farmer who is now Professor of Food Policy at City University London.

But now he says it is now “at an unsustainable level” and recently told the Cheltenham Science Festival there is a cultural problem in what people think a “good diet” is.

“Do you think you choose your food? You choose within the confines of our culture. Progress – what is it? What is a good society? Three packets of meat for £10?,” he queried.

Prof Lang says food policy makers are beginning to address meat consumption, but the UK is slow to catch up countries like Germany and Sweden.

Change, he thinks, needs to come from society – by setting new cultural rules, including making meat an occasional, main event.

“The new cultural rules… is it low/no meat? I think yes,” Prof Lang explains.

“We have all got to be prepared to change. Undertake some changes yourself. Maybe today we won’t have meat, we’ll have it on a feast day.

“But what is that? How do you have one if you are not religious? I’m an atheist, but I am not opposed to a feast day. It doesn’t have to be religious.”

Sustainable food expert Michael Pollan also endorses the return to “meat feasts”.

He said: “We need to go back with our meat eating, to a point where meat was special, because for our health and the health of the environment we can’t continue to keep eating meat the way we are.”

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