Speaking at a Square Meal debate on tackling climate change with sustainable food systems, Laura Wellesley, a research associate at think tank Chatham House, said ‘very little’ was being done to address greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in livestock production.
Red meat was a major driver of climate change, yet consumption was estimated to increase by 66 per cent by 2050, she told delegates at the debate in London.
She said: “If we do not tackle our diets, we will use up our carbon budget by the middle of the century from our food alone.”
Ms Wellesley said the livestock sector remained peripheral to climate talks and national action plans, and added it was ‘irresponsible of Government not to address the issue of over-consumption’.
She said a carbon tax would be related to the level of emissions of the products and this must be paired with lowering the price of vegetables.
“Do not be afraid to intervene on price,” she said.
“We will not see the scale of change of behaviour we need if we do not raise the price of food."
Ms Wellesley said it was not clear how a carbon tax would operate but, ultimately, the aim would be to reduce meat consumption.
She suggested reducing consumption could also bring health benefits, including a reduction in diabetes, bowel cancer and heart disease.
Farmers in the audience criticised the idea of a carbon tax, with one highlighting the environmental benefits of grass-fed beef over intensively reared livestock fed on grain.
Guy Watson, founder of Riverford Organic Farms, said expecting customers to absorb the complexity of climate challenges and food and farming systems was ‘unrealistic’.
“Do not expect consumers to lead the change,” he added.
He said ‘farmers influenced other farmers’ and it was down to the agricultural community, including agricultural colleges, to ‘shape the change’, with regard to reducing the environmental impact of meat production.