Meat and dairy: 5 crucial facts the government is ignoring

What we eat is a personal choice. But we’re never taught what these choices mean for the other things we care about, and the government refuses to help. Here’s what you need to know.


It’s said that you should never talk about politics or religion at the dinner table. But there’s another taboo topic that’s being avoided come tea time. Meat and dairy reduction. Before you threaten me with your fork please hear me out.

Our deep emotional and cultural connections to the food we eat is blocking us from seeing that excessive meat and dairy production is one of the biggest threats to our planet.

Even though the government’s own food experts are calling for significant meat and dairy reduction, the government is ignoring them, leaving it out of the new Food Strategy altogether.

That’s why we now have to address the elephant in the room – or should I say cow. Diet is a personal choice. But we should make that choice knowing how it’ll affect the other things we care about.

More and more people are cutting back on meat and dairy. But we can’t change the food system by ourselves. Climate change is getting worse so we need to think bigger and move faster.

55% of Britons are willing or already cutting down on meat and dairy to help the planet.

That’s why it’s vital that the government works with the food industry to help redefine what a “balanced diet” looks like. One that makes sure there’s accessible, nutritious and delicious food that respects people’s cultural and religious traditions, and is sustainable for our planet.

Hopefully you’ve lowered your fork back down to the table now. Let’s go through the five most important facts about meat and dairy. These are key to understanding the issue, and seeing why the government’s lack of action is a problem.

1. Meat and dairy is wrecking our climate

Cows, sheep and goats burp out methane when their stomachs break down food. Methane is a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide, but per ton it heats the planet much faster. Methane is a big reason why too much animal agriculture is so bad for the climate.

When you add up the emissions from all livestock globally – the food they eat, the forests cut down and burned for their pastures, and use of chemicals – animal agriculture is responsible for 19% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The impact is so high that the biggest meat companies do as much climate damage as fossil fuel giants like Total. The mammoth meat processor JBS splurges out more climate-wrecking gases than the whole of Italy.

Even if we ended fossil fuel use today, without significantly reducing meat and dairy, emissions from the global food system would make it impossible to limit warming to 1.5°C.

2. The UK’s land is dominated by animal agriculture

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. A big part of the problem is that wildlife simply isn’t given enough space to survive and thrive. The sheer number of farmed animals is putting a huge strain on our land and resources.

This map below divides the UK’s land up based on how it’s used. Around 70% is used for agriculture – mainly livestock, livestock feed and pasture.

A map of the UK which groups different types of land use together to show their relative scale. Beef and lamb pastures cover a huge portion of land from northern Scotland down past the midlands. Built-up areas cover about half of west Wales. Cereals cover the south-east.

Map from the UK government’s National Food Strategy, Part 2 Carbon Brief

The right hand side of the chart uses the same scale and shows how much land is used overseas to produce food for the UK. The combined land area for rearing beef and lamb for UK consumption is larger than the UK itself – mind blowing.

And it’s not just the UK. Forests across South America are being burnt down and destroyed to grow food for animals. Don’t believe the misinformation that it’s vegans and veggies destroying rainforests – 77% of soya grown globally is fed to animals, only 7% is consumed directly by humans.

Globally, meat and dairy production is the biggest cause of deforestation, which is bringing death and destruction to Indigenous Communities as well as nature.

Farm animals hugely outnumber wild birds and mammals

70% of birds alive today are chickens and other poultry. Just 30% are wild birds.

60% of the mammals on Earth are now livestock. Only 4% of all mammals are wild.

3. Producing meat and dairy is hugely wasteful

Put simply, farmed animals consume more food than they produce. Just 1kg of chicken meat takes 3.2kg of crops to produce. And as I mentioned above they require massive amounts of land.

The government’s chief food expert recently said – “meat and dairy make up only a third of the calories we eat. Yet 85% of UK farmland is used for feeding and rearing livestock. This is a wildly inefficient use of land.” His words, not mine.

Globally, feeding crops to farmed animals wastes enough food to billions of people. You don’t need a PhD in agricultural science to know that something is seriously wrong here.

4. Factory farms are polluting UK rivers

There’s been lots of talk about water companies polluting rivers with raw sewage, and rightfully so – it’s disgusting. But did you know that intensive animal agriculture also pollutes UK rivers?

US-style mega factory farms have been spreading across the UK countryside. There are now over one thousand in the UK, with some holding up to a million animals. And let me tell you, as well as being hell holes for the animals involved, they produce a lot of poo.

Pigs crowded into a dimly-lit shed. They're packed so tightly that some are lying on top of others, and you can't see the floor.

Industrial farms keep animals in cramped conditions, and their waste pollutes local rivers. © Pedro Armestre / Greenpeace

So much so that the River Wye in Wales is at risk of ecological collapse because of pollution from the nearby chicken factory farms. High phosphate levels from the chickens’ excrement is literally killing the river.

Yeah sorry about that – not only do you need to worry about the sewage in your river, but chicken and pig poop as well.

5. The meat and dairy industry are misleading the public

The science is clear: excessive animal agriculture is bad for nature and the climate. But the meat and dairy industry is pulling out the oldest tricks in the book to stop policies that reduce animal agriculture.

A 2021 investigation by DeSmog, exposed how the meat and dairy industry is using PR campaigns, lobbying and funding research to confuse and mislead.

Their main aims are to:

  • Downplay the impact of livestock farming on the climate
  • Cast doubt on the effectiveness of alternatives to meat to combat climate change
  • Promote the health benefits of meat while overlooking the industry’s environmental footprint
  • Exaggerate the potential of agricultural innovations to reduce the livestock industry’s ecological impact.

This is exactly what the tobacco industry did in the 20th century, and it’s exactly what the fossil fuel industry has been doing for decades. It not only misleads the public but it helps give decision makers more wiggle room to not fully address the issue.

There’s so much to be gained from fixing our food system

Transforming our food system and using land more efficiently will mean greater food security. It will mean playing our part to fight the climate crisis, whilst also freeing up vast amounts of land so wildlife can thrive again.

All this can be achieved with people eating a much smaller amount of meat and dairy and more plant-based foods as part of a healthy balanced diet.

Overhead view of a dinner table loaded with colourful vegetarian dishes. Hands reach in to serve the food.

The UK government knows all this, but they’re frightened by powerful agribusiness companies, the meat lobby and the National Farmers Union (NFU), so they’re dodging the issue rather than doing what’s necessary to protect our climate and nature.

To create a fair and sustainable food system that works for everyone, the government must act. This means supporting farmers to produce food more sustainably. It means making plant-based foods more affordable and accessible. And it means stopping imports of animal feed that’s destroying forests overseas.

So no matter what you like to eat, this affects you. And you have the right to demand better.

What's next?

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