A row over meat consumption in Spain over the past month is just the latest eruption of the debate across Europe as the continent scrambles to make its famed cuisines more sustainable.
Food is inextricably linked to national identity for continental European countries; a good steak, with a perfect fries stacked aside; a thin wafer plate carpaccio, drizzled with vinaigrette or old-fashioned olive oil; wurst, served with good mustard; iberian ham laced with creamy white fat.
Europeans love their meat and eat a lot of it. About 1.5 kg per week is consumed by the average EU27 citizen, twice the world average.
But it is also clear that if we are to hope to reduce the impact of global warming, this level of consumption will have to fall rapidly. Greenpeace estimates that it will have to drop by 70% by the end of the decade, and drop to 300g by 2050. This translates (since all the meat that comes out of slaughterhouses does not end up being sold or eaten) by every European who actually eats, per week, an amount of meat equivalent to about two good-sized hamburgers.
The answer to this news? Not enthusiastic, to say the least. Politically, balancing the priorities of environmental action with the weight of often powerful agricultural lobbies and the expectations of populations accustomed to consuming large quantities of meat at an unrealistic price seems almost impossible.
In Spain, for example, which holds the dubious honor of being the EU member state with the highest per capita supply of meat in the bloc (over 100 kg per person per year), the Minister of consumption, Alberto Garzón, was swallowed up in a row last July after calling on his compatriots to eat less meat for the sake of the environment and their own bodies. “Our health and that of our families are at stake,” he said. “Eating too much meat is bad for our health and bad for the planet.”
Within hours, he had been slapped not only by the Minister of Agriculture, but also by the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez. When asked what he thought of Garzón’s call, Sánchez observed, “Personally, a medium-rare steak is hard to beat.”
There is evidence that many Europeans take the issue seriously. A recent survey showed that almost half (46%) of European consumers now eat less meat than before, while 40% plan to reduce their meat consumption in the future.
The EU-backed study, involving more than 7,500 people in 10 European countries, found that a third were actively seeking to minimize their meat intake – with 73% of this group saying they had ‘significantly’ reduced their consumption of meat. meat in recent months.
But in its latest paper, the European Commission suggests that despite clear and growing public awareness of the importance of sustainability, EU meat consumption per capita, left to its own devices, is set to fall by just over 3 kg per year.
Government intervention will therefore be essential, but, judging by the example of Spain, difficult. Garzón told the Guardian again in December that people needed to reduce their meat consumption and contrasted meat from traditional and extensive farming with that produced on intensive mega-farms, but parts of Garzón’s interview were seized by the conservative People’s Party and the extreme right Vox. party, who demanded his resignation for what they describe as an unforgivable attack on Spain’s important meat industry and the quality of its exports.
The Minister of Consumer Affairs remained true to his words, accusing “the lobby of certain large companies that promote polluting mega-farms” of deliberately distorting his words. Moreover, his comments do not differ greatly from official government policy. The Ministry of Ecological Transition wants extensive production systems to be promoted and adapted indigenous breeds to be used more. The Minister of Agriculture has praised small family farms, and some regional governments have already acted to limit intensive farming.
In Germany, traditionally one of the biggest consumers of animal products in the EU per capita, meat consumption has fallen steadily over the past two decades, but here too the policy is sensitive.
One would have expected the Green Party, which is part of the new three-party coalition with the centre-left SPD and the liberal FDP, to embark on accelerating the downward trend, but retained so far.
The hesitation comes from a painful political experience. The German Greens have suffered in recent years from being seen as a Verbotspartei, wanting to banish the joys of life. In 2013, a “vegetarian day” initiative for meat-free days in state-subsidized canteens saw the tabloid Bild complain that “the Greens want to take our meat away from us”.
Instead, the Green Party used its first weeks in office to launch a politically less revealing campaign against junk meat being sold at junk prices. New agriculture minister Cem Özdemir told Bild that Germans were losing because food quality and prices were too low.
Junk prices, often imposed by all-powerful supermarket chains, he said, “drive farms to ruin, impede animal welfare, drive species extinction and hurt the climate. I want to change that.” Food prices must, he said, echoing the findings of a commission set up by the previous government, reflect the “ecological truth” and consumers must get used to paying a fair price for better quality.
But this approach is also far from universally popular: the new government’s attack on cheap meat has been criticized by the Paritätische Gesamtverband, an umbrella group of German welfare organisations, which says that rising meat prices foodstuffs must be accompanied by compensation for low-income people.
And in Italy, Environment Minister Roberto Cingolani sparked a heated debate last year by claiming that excessive meat consumption was harmful to health and the environment, adding that encouraging Italians to eat less meat would be central to his plans.
“Changing our diet will have the combined benefit of improving public health, reducing water consumption and producing less CO2said Cingolani. Farmers immediately hit back, saying annual per capita meat consumption in Italy was among the lowest in Europe and that meat was an important part of a balanced diet.
Activists including Luca Mercalli, a well-known meteorologist, are fueling the debate, arguing that higher quality meat produced closer to home and consumed in smaller quantities would make a significant difference to the environment.
“A part of Italians are sensitive to the subject and have changed their diet, either because of concerns about the climate or for dietary reasons,” Mercalli said. “The problem in Italy is that the debate often becomes toxic, with vegetarians becoming very critical of meat eaters, which alienates 90% of the population.”
It is incumbent on the government to provide clearer information, he said. “The message should be: eat less meat, but when you do, buy locally produced meat that is more sustainable. Even if you pay more, eating higher quality meat once a week is far better than eating a cheap burger every day.
French meat consumption is also on a steady decline, with surveys suggesting that half of the population have reduced their meat consumption in the last three years and that 30% would like to continue doing so in the next three. And yet, howls of indignation greeted the launch of France’s national low-carbon strategy, adopted in 2020, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture – which represent 20% of the total countries, 80% of which are generated by livestock – within 19 years. % by 2030 and 46% by 2050.
EU countries that have attempted to implement concrete meat reduction policies have faced instant backlash. The Danish government was forced in 2020 to reverse a ban on state canteens serving meat for two days a week after unions and the food industry objected, and the government has now stood down. focused on boosting non-meat food production, endorsing a climate deal that includes the EU’s biggest investment in plant-based research and development, including an annual fund to support the transition to a nationwide dietary shift. In the Netherlands, in an attempt to tackle the major environmental problems long caused by its intensive pig and other farms as a priority, the new government has appointed a Minister for Nature and Nitrogen, Christianne van der Wal- Zeggelink.
And all this is no less true for the European Commission itself, grappling with the incompatibility of ambitious plans to cut carbon emissions and the vast Common Agricultural Policy subsidies that make up almost a third of the budget. of the EU. Greenpeace has broken down the numbers and calculates that a fifth of the total EU budget is spent on livestock.
As recently as 2020, the EU was still spending money to promote meat consumption with a controversial and frankly a bit crazy advertising campaign urging people to become Beefatarians. “If the sound of beef sizzling on the grill brings tears to your eyes, you’re a real beeftarian,” coos the ad. Confuses? It will only get worse.