Why I Won’t Be Supporting British Meat Farmers As Tesco Goes Plant-Based

A recently leaked letter revealed that supermarket giant Tesco is planning to offer a non-meat alternative for every animal product they stock. 

UK meat farmers are up in arms about the news that Tesco is going to recreate ‘every animal product’ with a vegan version in the coming years. Already facing the economic and bureaucratic impact of Brexit plus rising numbers of consumers going plant-based, it seems logical that they would turn to their distributors for support. However, in doing so, they are missing the point. Now is the time to seek support to transition out of a dying industry and into a green and profitable future. 

Leader of the Pack

Tesco is the first of the big 4 supermarkets (Sainsbury’s, Asda, and Morrisons are the other 3) to make such a bold move. In order to encourage its customers to shop plant-based, Tesco CEO Ken Murphy has committed to increase meat alternative sales by a huge 300% by 2025. Plus, he will publish plant based protein sales as a percentage of protein sales going forward. 

But the meat farming community has come out fighting. It says the real issue is the irresponsible supply chains that supermarkets are part of; responsible British farmers shouldn’t have to take the hit.

“Consumers have the right to select products based on their personal dietary preferences, but those choices should be based on a real understanding of their impact. The worst option would be to offer a choice between fake meat and imported meat products from unsustainable systems,” insists Tim Bonner, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance in an interview with The Telegraph.

A National Farmers’ Union spokesperson agrees,“People should be reassured that if they want to enjoy meat and dairy products and at the same time reduce their carbon footprint – they can. In the UK, greenhouse gas emissions from beef production are half that of the global average.”

According to Paul Morozzo, Senior Forests Campaigner at Greenpeace, UK farmers’ supply chain argument is credible. “Tesco’s announcement will do little to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis without a parallel commitment to reduce meat sales and drop companies like JBS.”

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Mass-produced Meat

JBS is the largest meat processing company in the world. It produces around half the carbon emissions of fossil fuel giants such as Shell or BP. The majority of meat bought in the UK is “industrial.” This means produced in intensive factory farms that require huge amounts of land and often involve animal degradation.  Demand from supermarkets and fast-food chains like Tesco, Sainsbury’s, KFC, and McDonald’s results in deforestation in order to graze and feed billions of farmed animals in, for example, South America. However, 50% of UK chicken is produced in UK industrial farms according to a 2020 Bureau of Investigative Journalism report. And almost three million chickens are consumed in the UK every day. So clearly, a significant number of UK farmers are also part of this destructive supply chain. 

It’s pretty hard to ignore the global climate and social imperative for switching away from meat farming, CO2 emissions, deforestation, wildlife destruction, human rights abuses, and animal welfare to name but a few. An investigation by Greenpeace Brazil showed that mass meat producer JBS has been linked to illegal operations on protected Indigenous lands, modern-day slavery and salmonella-ridden chicken exports. Greenpeace research also suggests that in highly industrialised nations, such as the UK, we need to be eating 70% less meat and dairy by 2030 to prevent climate breakdown.

spinach woman

Eat Your Greens

Equally, it’s harder to ignore that the growing demand for meat-alternatives is being led by consumers. Whilst supermarkets, like Tesco, play a huge role in shaping customer demand through advertising, price cuts and promos, the Vegan Society statistics showed that a record-breaking 500,000 people took on the Veganuary challenge this year. Moreover, a recent poll showed that around 14% of adults (7.2 million) in the UK are following a meat-free diet. A further 12% (6.5 million) of the population intend to become vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian in 2021. People following veganism increased by 40% in 2020. 

A Tesco spokesperson said: “Many of our customers are moving towards flexitarian diets for both health and environmental reasons, which is why we’ve committed to increasing the amount of meat alternatives food.” 

This would suggest the move to a meat-free world isn’t a question of “if.” In fact, it’s “when.” The key to UK farmers’ success is going with the flow not trying to swim against the tide. 

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Moving Away From Meat

In the same way that the UK government is restructuring the energy industry away from fossil fuel, so it needs to help animal farmers restructure away from meat production, to other economically viable and sustainable farming processes. As Morozzo explains, “Our meat consumption is far beyond what our planet can cope with. We can’t just shift from industrial chicken and pork fed on Brazilian soya to UK beef, our food system needs an overhaul. We need a rapid shift to an agro-ecological farming system in the UK with policies that protect farming jobs and nature, tackle food poverty and produce less but better quality meat.”

The British government has tried several times in the past to artificially prop up industries that were in inevitable decline. Its success was limited. The brutal coal-miner strikes and the disappearance of the Northern shipbuilding industry in the 80s both illustrate this. With the benefit of hindsight, more could have been done to look forward and give people the tools to find new livelihoods then try to preserve and protect the status quo. 

The UK farming industry has always had a disproportionately generous helping hand from the government via European Union (EU) subsidies. Anyone over 45 will remember the horrifying 80s butter mountains because of the EU paying farmers for surplus. Now, in the post-Brexit transition plan, UK farmers will lose half of their subsidies by 2024. In comparison, the TV industry has undergone massive change in the past decade via the online and streaming revolutions. This change was too driven by consumer habits. However, without the powerful political lobbies that more traditional, heavy industries have, the tv industry has had to respond quickly and pragmatically to a changing cultural landscape.

Supporting British meat farmers should mean helping them transition, not giving them more handouts. But who is going to support this process if not the UK government? 

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Agents of Change

In the US, the Rancher Advocacy Program (RAP) came about after rancher’s wife Renee King Sonnen went vegan. Unwilling to participate in her husband’s cattle business, she started the first non-profit vegan farm animal sanctuary. As a result of the demand from other families wanting to transition from animal agriculture to a financially stable, environmentally-friendly way of life, the RAP came about in 2018.

As Hollie Schacherl, a recently transitioned rancher, explains,

“I still can’t believe there are organisations like the Rancher Advocacy Program existing to help ranchers who have had a change of heart and want to live a more compassionate life style, but I’m so grateful that there are. It is truly a symbol of the changes happening in our world!”

However, these organisations aren’t just limited to the US. For example, Refarm’d is a UK start-up that assists dairy farmers in their transition to plant-based beverage production, using only organic and locally sourced ingredients. The time for such forward-looking enterprises is ripe. UK plant-based milk sales were up 28.3% last year and 32% of British households are now buying dairy-free milk, according to Specialty Food Magazine.

“The dairy industry is struggling. I believe that to help our farmers, we need to work with them and help them get out of this system. That’s what we at Refarm’d are trying to do,” says founder Geraldine Starke. “Our model is conceived such that farmers keep their identity, their dignity, their farm, and their animals while being self-sufficient. We want to show what the future of farming could look like.”

cow grass

In February, RAP held its second annual summit built around converting farmers and ranchers away from raising livestock. Attended by farmers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and activists, keynote speakers included Brett Christoffel, founder of the plant-based snack empire, Lee Recht, global leader in sustainable food solutions and British dairy farmers Jay and Katja Wilde. The Wildes are the subject of the BAFTA award-winning documentary, 73 Cows. It follows their journey of rehoming their herd and transitioning to vegan farming with the help of Refarm’d. 

RAP summit co-host and award-winning journalist, Jane Velez-Mitchell explained to planetSHINE why working with like-minded international organisations such as Refarm’d is paramount.

“As we see with the pandemic and climate change, the problems created by animal agriculture are global in scope. The solutions must be global in scope. Also, farmers and ranchers the world over are waking up and wanting out of animal agriculture.” 

Her advice to those farmers and ranchers considering the transition? “Plan now. Start experimenting with alternative forms of revenue while you are still trapped in that terrible contract. Coordinate with other farmers and ranchers in your community who also want out. Believe! It will happen.”

As Tesco stated in its plant-based press release, “We remain proud supporters of British farming. We continue to work across the farming community to support our goal to provide customers with healthy, sustainable, affordable food.”

I’m all for supporting British farmers, just not when they are farming animals. Let’s not protect the existing meat industry. Instead, we need to help animal farmers find and transition to economically-viable plant-based alternatives.  

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