A coalition of health professionals from the United Kingdom is calling to implement a climate tax on foodstuffs with a large environmental impact by 2025. The climate change crisis can’t be solved without taking steep action to reduce the consumption of food that causes high emissions, such as beef and dairy, they argued.
The Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC), which represents doctors, nurses, and other health professionals from the UK, argued in a report that it will be impossible to keep global temperatures at safe levels unless there is a transformation in the way the world produces food and manages land.
Food production and consumption account for around 20% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions, half of which is related to imports (largely through feed crops and the related deforestation), rather than locally-produced food. Red meat consumption will need to be cut by 50% to stay within sustainable environmental limits, they argued.
Professor Dame Parveen Kumar, ambassador of UKHACC, said in a statement: “Most activity to limit climate change has focused on decarbonizing energy and transportation. This is very important, but we mustn’t overlook the potential to mitigate the dangerous health effects of climate change by rethinking our approach to food.”
UKHACC carried out a poll among healthcare workers and found that two-thirds agreed that changing your diet in a way that reduces its environmental impact can also improve your health. At the same time, the results showed that 40% of those surveyed had already changed their own eating habits due to environmental concerns.
Food production is responsible for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. A growing number of scientific studies have shown that red meat and dairy have far bigger impacts than plant-based food. People in rich nations already eat more meat than recommended, so it’s not only about the environment but also about health.
Professor Andrew Goddard, President of the Royal College of Physicians, said in a statement: “I am the first to admit that I enjoy a steak every now and then, but it’s clear that if we are to avoid dangerous levels of global warming we must start to reconsider our attitudes to food.”
In their report, the health professionals argued that the UK government has to do more to encourage, enable, and support changes in food production and dietary habits. They listed a set of recommendations, including carrying out public information campaigns on diet to include climate messages and using labels on food to show their environmental impact.
Not as easy as it seems
While health experts in the UK ask for further action, the Danish government has already taken concrete steps but was forced to backtrack. Authorities had introduced two vegetarian days a week in state canteens but trade unions objected to the move, leading to a U-turn on the policy a week after implementation.
Denmark has been trying for a while now to make cuts in the nation’s diet-related footprint to help meet its ambitious new climate targets. As well as these vegetarian days, the government is planning to introduce initiatives to help reduce emissions from the farming sector.
Anne Paulin, a climate spokesperson for the ruling Social Democrats, told the Guardian that the recent move aimed at setting an example on greener eating habits. Now, they have reached a more “pragmatic solution” as the vegetarian days will be voluntary. “We should eat less meat for climate and health reasons,” she added.
While Greenpeace said the government’s U-turn was “embarrassing,” the Danish food industry said the move wasn’t necessarily beneficial in reducing climate emissions. They said Danish food products are among “the most climate efficient in the world” and changing diets would force importing food from aboard with laxer environmental standards.