Less and Better – a call to value our food

Posted on April 23, 2019 by Sean Wensley

Meat consumption is a hot topic. Media coverage of initiatives such as “Veganuary” has been higher than ever, and investors are said to view the meat and dairy alternatives sector as a “key prospect”. Just last month, I attended a student-organised conference at Queen’s University Belfast asking “By 2100 will meat consumption be a thing of the past?”.

As BVA highlights in its newly-published position on UK sustainable animal agriculture, fewer healthier and happier animals with better productivity have less of a sustainability impact than numerous animals with poorer health and welfare outcomes. The position recommends that the veterinary profession promotes the “Less and Better” concept, which sees some people reducing their overall consumption of animal-derived products, while maintaining their proportional spend on these products within their household food budget. This can be a mechanism for financially supporting high animal health and welfare standards, as part of ensuring the expanding global human population is fed sustainably and within planetary boundaries.

Valuing food

For vets and vet nurses, Less and Better makes sense principally for its potential animal welfare benefits. The veterinary professions have seen first-hand how meat and dairy products have become devalued, as post-war food policy was directed at boosting productivity and reducing price. The average percentage of household expenditure on food and drink in the home has fallen from 21% in 1965 to 8% in 2017 and this has allowed meat, like chicken, to shift from being a valued food enjoyed on special occasions (for example, Sunday roast) to something that is included in meals on most days. These market pressures, which have infamously resulted in some consumers paying more for bottled water than a bottle of milk, are associated with many of the priority farm animal welfare problems that BVA, together with the species-specialist veterinary associations, are committed to addressing. As we return to valuing animal-derived food, then those who are able to can put their funds towards higher quality food, where quality includes the quality of the animals’ lives and the humaneness of their deaths. Less and Better sees some people doing this in parallel with an overall reduction in their meat and dairy consumption, to increase affordability.

Meeting other sustainability objectives

In the evolving global food system, set against a context of rapid human population expansion - from 7.6 billion people now to a projected 9.8 billion in 2050 - animal welfare is one amongst several key sustainability objectives. As BVA’s position highlights, in addition to animal welfare (i.e. respecting sentient animals and meeting their physical and behavioural needs) and production efficiency, the world’s population will need to be fed using systems that mitigate climate change risk, reduce antimicrobial resistance (AMR), protect biodiversity, achieve fair returns for producers and produce food that is safe, nutritious and affordable.

One Health

A “nutrition transition”, characterised by increased consumption of fats, meats and sugar, occurs as countries become more affluent. This could be taken as a cue to simply increase supply of meat and dairy, but this alone will not meet the other critical sustainability objectives. On human health, for example, medical bodies including Public Health England and the NHS recommend an average maximum daily intake of red and processed meat of 70g per day. Globally, almost double the recommended range of processed meat is consumed. Global animal agriculture is a significant contributor to climate change, so taking these impacts together, the British Medical Association (BMA) urges medical doctors to “help [their] patients to improve their health and lower their carbon emissions by encouraging them to… eat less meat”. Through a One Health approach, it is legitimate for the medical profession to make dietary recommendations on human health grounds, while veterinary professionals should advocate for protected overall spend to be allocated to higher welfare products.

Vet Futures

The Vet Futures Report positions our 2030 profession as playing a full and leading role in matters of sustainability, and developing a position on humane, sustainable animal agriculture was a specific action within the linked BVA Animal Welfare Strategy – Vets Speaking Up For Animal Welfare. The BVA Farm Assurance Working Group that developed the position also developed the BVA #ChooseAssured infographic, launched in 2018 to help consumers recognise and understand the attributes of various farm assurance schemes and logos.

How to eat “Better”?

How consumers spend their modestly increased sums to achieve “better” consumption will depend on their personal values and ethical priorities. Seeking out trusted assurance schemes on animal-derived products is key and BVA, on behalf of the veterinary profession, wants to ensure that we prioritise animal health and welfare in our decision-making. By using BVA’s at-a-glance #ChooseAssured infographic, all of us can easily make decisions around priority animal welfare criteria such as whether laying hens and pigs are behaviourally restricted, or whether animals are stunned before slaughter to prevent suffering. By choosing any of the included major assurance schemes, we are also ensuring that British farmers are being rewarded for the food they are producing.

A future for meat?

The Queen’s debate concluded that, while all dietary choices should be respected, animal-derived foods are likely to be consumed for some years to come - so long as key supply chain risks including animal welfare and the environment are prioritised and addressed. Promoting Less and Better gives us all a means to help achieve this.

Sean Wensley

Written by Sean Wensley

BVA President from September 2015 to September 2016

Sean is Senior Veterinary Surgeon for Communication and Education at PDSA, based in Northern Ireland. He is also an Honorary Lecturer in animal welfare at the University of Nottingham.