Eat less meat for greater food security, British population urged

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People in Britain should eat meat less often, in order to help ease the food crises in the developing world, an influential committee of MPs has urged.

It could also help to mitigate the rampant food price inflation that has seen the cost of staple foods in the UK rise by close to one-third in the last five years.

The massive increase in meat consumption in rich countries in recent decades has led to spikes in the price of grain, used for animal feed, as well as leading to widespread deforestation and pressure on agricultural land, and has contributed to the obesity epidemic. By avoiding meat even for a day or two each week, people could help to ease some of these pressures.

The MPs’ warning, in a report entitled Global Food Security, came as governments from around the world prepared to converge in London for a summit on nutrition and world hunger.

The international development select committee said that the increase in meat eating was only one of many factors underlying the global food crises that have afflicted the developing world twice in the last five years, in 2008 and 2011, but going vegetarian even for just a few meals a week is something that most people could manage easily, and with positive health impacts. They called on the government to start a public health campaign to encourage people to change their behaviour.

A national campaign on reducing food waste should also be an urgent priority, according to the MPs, as well as tough targets for big retailers to cut the amount of food they throw away. Government agency Wrap already runs a Love Food Hate Waste campaign.

Sir Michael Bruce, chairman of the committee, stressed that food crises and their effects are not limited to poor countries. “There is no room for complacency about food security over the coming decades if UK consumers are to enjoy stable supplies and reasonable food prices,” he said.

“UK aid to help smallholders increase food production in the developing world is of direct benefit to UK consumers as rising world food prices will reduce living standards of hard-pressed UK consumers.”

Intensive farms, favoured by some farmers as they make raising livestock cheaper by housing them in vast sheds instead of fields, also came under fire, because they require animals to be fed on grain instead of grass.

Sir Malcolm warned that the UK was “never more than a few days away from a significant food shortage” because of our reliance on imports.

The effect of biofuels, which compete with food crops for fertile land and water in some regions, came in for scrutiny, with MPs warning that EU targets – now partially relaxed – that 10% of liquid fuels should come from bio sources by 2020 could lead to further food price hikes. The MPs said the UK should set its target, the renewable transport fuel obligation, to exclude agriculturally produced biofuels. This would still allow waste, including waste cooking oil, to be used.

The committee praised the Department for International Development’s “significant efforts to meet the considerable unmet need for contraception in many developing nations” and urged the government to “maintain a keen focus on women’s reproductive rights within its development assistance programmes” – an insistence that may cause unease among some religious conservatives. In the US, evangelical Christians succeeded in axing many such programmes under president George W Bush.

Another area of concern highlighted in the report was the increasing trend for big companies to buy up large areas of land in many developing countries previously farmed by smallholders. MPs recommend that UK-domiciled corporations be required to be transparent about land deals, with full implementation of the UN voluntary guidelines on the governance of tenure.

EU inventions to support meat and livestock production topped €255 million in 2011 but could be cut under proposals to reducing budgetary support for the future Common Agricultural Policy.

Still, Europeans love their meat. Meat consumption has been rising steadily in Sweden and the EU for years. The per-capita Swedish consumption of 87 kilos per year is slightly higher than the EU average.

Luxembourg has the world's highest per-capita level of meat consumption, ahead of the United States, and one of the biggest tastes for beef, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Spain, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal and Italy are also among the world's largest meat-consuming nations.

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