I attended Meat the Future with fellow IFST members in March 2022. This is a review I coauthored with a great colleague, Susan Arkley on behalf of the Institute.
Photo from IFST’s Food Science & Technology magazine June issue
AN IFST REVIEW OF “MEAT THE FUTURE” EXHIBITION AT THE OXFORD UNIVERSITY MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
Across the world 90% of people are meat eaters and global consumption of meat is rising. Meat production is already contributing to potentially catastrophic climate change and if nothing changes, future demands will require impossible amounts of land and water.
On Wednesday 30th March 2022, 15 members from IFST’s Midlands branch and from the Food Innovation SIG met, some for the first time, for a guided tour of “Meat the Future” exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, that ran until May 2022. The exhibition considered some of the key findings of the LEAP (Livestock, Environment and People) project, that studied the health, environmental, social and economic impacts of meat and dairy production and consumption and ran between 2017 and 2021 www.leap.ox.ac.uk .
The exhibition was targeted at the general public and was presented in a very visual, non-judgemental and accessible way. It was a great starting point to consider some of the many factors that contribute to this complex conversation.
This article will give a brief summary of some of the key information from the exhibition, as well as share the implications and considerations from a food science and technology perspective as considered by the IFST members who attended.
The guided tour comprised not only of the exhibits themselves, but also of the behind-the-scenes considerations such as selecting the relevant research information, working with designers to create eye catching exhibits and choosing the correct location within the museum to house the exhibition. The exhibition was designed to look like a high street with the majority of the exhibits displayed in a ‘shopfront’ window. A really eye catching and clever design, as each ‘shopfront’ represented a different aspect of the production, selling and consumption of meat both globally and domestically.
These were the various sections of the exhibition and their key messages:
The Butchers Shop – exploring the public’s understanding of the issues surrounding meat production and consumption and its cultural significance
The display had trays of meat in between rows of fake grass and joints of meat hanging on hooks. There were also quotes from Museum volunteers and visitors who had been asked to complete the sentence: Meat is…
…best as beef in a Sunday lunch
…delicious and best enjoyed in moderation
…too morally fraught to be consumed if other options are available
…bad for my health, bad for the planet, bad for the animals
The answers showed a wide spectrum of perspectives. From highlighting how entrenched meat consumption is in our daily lives to signs that the public are beginning to question its environmental, nutritional and ethical credentials.
Prompted by the this exhibit our group discussed the cultural importance of meat in the diet as another key factor.
Come dine with me – providing the facts around global levels of meat consumption
The second window showed a café front, with tables complete with red gingham tablecloths and plates of ‘burgers.’ Stacks of burgers were used to show how meat consumption had changed in the US, Brazil, UK, China and India between 1961 and 2013. It was a very good, visually impactful way of showing how meat consumption is linked to prosperity growth.
Photo from exhibition
Most notable was the manyfold increase in meat consumption in Brazil (75g per person per day in 1961 to 267g in 2013) and China (10g in 1961 to 69g in 2013) that followed the increase in the populations’ wealth, with the consumption of meat, culturally representing “proof” of personal wealth. Meat consumption in India has remained the same at 10g, 22 times lower than in the UK, due to religious dietary requirements and a less wealthy population. As for the US, it remains top of the meat consumption chart, at a staggering 243g per person per day in 1961 and 316g in 2013.
Living off the land – agricultural practices and how they have changed over the years
This exhibit was presented as a set of shelves, with various toys, pictures and items on display.
40% of the world’s total land area is currently dedicated to agriculture, providing livelihoods to millions. But how did farming develop from a traditional local enterprise to the global industry it is today? And how has science enabled farmers to satisfy the world’s increasing appetite for meat?
In the Middle Ages people farmed strips of land leased from the Lord of the Manor. By rotating the crops, they kept the soil fertile and grazed animals on the areas left fallow. During the 20th Century, farmers used scientific breeding methods to improve their livestock. There are 34 native cattle breeds in the UK, each selectively bred to thrive in different conditions and produce milk, beef or both. Today 14 of the cattle breeds are classed as rare.
During WW2, Britain was forced to produce more food when imports nearly stopped, but this came at a heavy cost to biodiversity as woods were cut down and ancient grasslands dug up to plant crops.
High Stakes – explaining the environmental impact of meat production
Farmers now raise more animals than ever to slaughter for meat. Vast areas of forest are cleared for grazing, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing widespread biodiversity loss and changing ecosystems irreversibly. Crops grown for animal feed require more land, fertiliser and irrigation – competing for water and other resources needed for human food. As ruminant animals digest food they release methane, which is significantly more damaging to the environment than CO2, into the environment contributing to climate change.
The exhibition proposed 5 interventions that could reduce habitat loss considerably:
- Healthier diets
- Halving food waste
- Better yields from agriculture
- Global sharing of farming
- New Food Choices
The IFST group noted that there was no mention of the ethics or legislation of meat production, animal welfare or animal husbandry in the exhibition. As scientist we were interested to understand more about current research into methane reduction.
New eco labelling for food – providing consumers with information on the true environmental impact of their food choices
This exhibit was designed to replicate a supermarket chiller cabinet containing packaged food displaying eco labels.
How can we cut back on meat and eat differently? It will take a global effort to alter the economics of food production – governments, researchers, scientists and citizens are all part of this conversation. Consumer choice is important, too. Researchers are proposing a new system of environmental labelling to give shoppers a clearer picture of the impact of their food – from field to fork. Trials are underway here in Oxford to test the proposed eco labels on canteen-goers.
Based on the familiar Nutriscore nutrition labels (5 levels of impact), the ecolabels being trialled rate food products according to their positive or negative impact on water scarcity, water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity. As well as giving consumers more choice, researchers hope that food producers will respond with new products with lower environmental impact. Tests to find the most effective design have been underway.
Our IFST attendees thought that the approach taken for the ecolabelling was clear and informative. Would consumers be willing to pay more for a lower impact food product?
Sowing seeds of a new diet – debugging some of the myths around meat consumption and nutrition
A diet including meat has been the norm for human beings across the world for hundreds of thousands of years. Genetic evidence shows some populations adapted to eating farmed dairy products 5,000 years ago at the dawn of agriculture. Our bodies rely on animal products such as meat, eggs or dairy for supplies of vitamin B12 that we require for survival. We have also evolved to absorb iron much more easily from meat than from any plant we eat.
But are there any health risks involved in a meat-heavy diet? And if we reduce our meat-eating, or cut it out altogether, what are the best strategies to get all the vital nutrients we need?
Planetary health diet – what would an environmentally friendly diet look like?
Our planet has plenty of capacity to feed all of the eight billion people alive today. If we make sensible decisions in the coming year, it can even feed nine – ten billion, which is where experts predict the population is most likely to be by 2050. But the demand for meat is already pushing the environment to its limits.
In the UK, we eat 223g of meat per person per day (2013 figures). This is more than twice the global average.
So how much meat can the planet sustainably produce? The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, and Health tried to answer this and came up with an estimate of 43g per person each day, divided between red meat and poultry – similar to the amount we ate before the age of industrialisation and factory farming. Other approaches have come up with different numbers, but all agree on less meat than we eat today in the UK.
A number of studies including the EAT-Lancet planetary health report have recommended eating more than double our current amount of plant-based foods and less than half the amount of sugars and red meat. This report proposes that if we all did this, we could feed our growing population, live healthier, longer lives and reduce our impact on the environment.
Meat tomorrow – how science and technology can help us follow a planet friendly diet
Our bodies evolved to eat meat and benefit from the nutrients it provides. Now, our diets can evolve to give us the nutrition we need without adding to the climate crisis. Science and technology built the meat industry we thought we needed. But today, research is helping us see why and how we need to do things differently.
Biting the Bullet – Final thoughts
What if everyone in the world adopted a ‘flexitarian’ diet with no processed meat, small amounts of red meat (one serving a week), moderate amounts of other animal-source foods (poultry, fish and dairy), and generous amounts of plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts). What effects would this have?
Landuse: We would need 8% less agricultural land, largely because we would need less grain to feed livestock. This freed up land could be used to grow nutritious crops for humans or returned to forest to store more carbon and increase biodiversity.
Water use quality and fertilisers: Agriculture would need 11% less water, allowing more to be used to maintain wetland, rivers and other biodiversity-rich freshwater habitats. We would use up to 24% less nitrogen and 18% less phosphorous in fertiliser applications so less would run off the land to damage drinking water quality and pollute our rivers, lakes and oceans.
Emissions: We could more than halve (55%) the greenhouse gas emissions from the food system – about a 10% reduction in all emissions from human activity.
Biodiversity: We could see up to 40% less species extinction, due to less land converted to agriculture and less pollution.
Health: The number of premature deaths due to diet-related diseases, such as heart disease and some cancers could decrease by 20%; this is due to the benefits of a healthy diet leading to a healthy weight, the positive effects of high-fibre diets as well as reductions in the incidence of diabetes and some vascular diseases and some cancers.
This exhibition generated a lot of discussion between the IFST group both during the guided tour and the coffee that followed. Some of the take outs and discussion points were:
- How can we as citizens make a positive change by eating differently? Every mouthful we take makes a statement about the future we want for ourselves and our planet.
- How can we go about changing cultures that see meat as a sign of wealth and prosperity?
- The claims and declaration space will become a lot more complicated in the future and food scientists and technologists need to stay on top of developments.
- This exhibition was a good starting point for a conversation with consumers. More needs to be done and at a faster pace and food scientists and technologists have a key role to play in this.
- Food science and technology professionals and IFST have a pivotal role in creating the future of food.
We would like to thank the team at Oxford University Museum of Natural History for welcoming IFST.
You can find out more about the exhibition on the museum’s website https://oumnh.ox.ac.uk/learn-meat-the-future
LEAP is supported by the Wellcome Trust’s Our Planet Our Health Programme and is one of four major interdisciplinary research partnerships in the areas of global food systems and urbanization.
The four-year project (2017-2021) is directed by Professor Charles Godfray (Hope Professor and Director of the Oxford Martin School and Future of Food Programme) and Professor Susan Jebb (Professor of Diet and Population Health, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences) and project managed by Dr Kelly Reed.
The project is a collaboration between the University of Oxford, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the supermarket group Sainsbury’s and The Nature Conservancy . We also work in partnership with other researchers supported by the Wellcome Trusts Our Planet Our Health programme including Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS) , led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Mini-livestock: insects as sustainable and healthy food, led by Wageningen University, Netherlands, and the LSHTM and SOAS Sustainability Health Projects.
Susan Arkley MBA, FIFST is a Product Development and Innovation Specialist, Food Consultant and Lecturer, Chair of the IFST Food Innovation Special Interest Group and Secretary of IFST Midlands Branch
Valia Christidou MSc, FIFST is a mentor and lecturer in New Product Development and an Innovation and Product Development Consultant to the Food Industry