We are at the peak of meat. Which supermarket will bite the bullet and commit to selling less? | Commentary and opinion
This summer, a headline sums up the enormity of the climate and natural crisis: the Amazon rainforest now emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. By relentlessly cutting and burning it, Big Meat brings the world’s largest rainforest – vital to our survival – to the brink of the abyss.
UK food retailers have known for decades that they share some of the responsibility. In 2010, the Greenpeace campaign led members of the Consumer Goods Forum, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and M&S, to sign “zero deforestation by 2020” pledges, but every retailer has failed. While shareholders have yet to feel the repercussions of these broken promises, the world’s forests are going up in smoke.
Brazil’s Bolsonaro government is stoking those flames, determined to pass bills to open vast swathes of the Amazon to industrial agriculture, bulldozer environmental protections and abolish the rights of indigenous peoples. As communities grapple with violence and land invasions, Tesco, Iceland, Sainsbury’s and others have rushed in with warm words, all engage yourself to “Reconsider the support and use of the Brazilian agricultural product supply chain” if these bills become law. It’s never now, always later. But supermarkets are already complicit in the alarming upward curve of deforestation and the disastrous consequences unfolding for the climate, nature, people and wildlife.
All major UK supermarkets sell industrial soy-fed meat. One billion chickens are slaughtered every year in the UK, and their soy-based diet is linked to the scorched and deforested land of the world’s most biodiverse savannah, the Brazilian cerrado, home to species like the jaguar, the maned wolf and the giant anteater.
In an effort to distance themselves from deforestation and appease affected customers, supermarkets are quick to say they no longer buy Brazilian beef, particularly criticized for its impact on the Amazon, and intend to buy soybeans ‘only from deforested areas’ by 2025. The first may be true, but the second is greenwash – these areas do not exist and talks to establish them collapsed in 2019.
The truth that supermarkets face is that they cannot sell meat at the volumes they do without being involved in deforestation. To permanently eliminate deforestation from the ingredient list, at least half of supermarket meat shelves need to be full of affordable, healthy, plant-based foods. There is no alternative. We are at the peak of meat.
Consumer education can go hand in hand with changing practices, but problems arise when supermarkets use the former as an excuse for inaction on the latter. Passing the ball when the ball lands with you is a move straight out of the oil companies’ playbook on greenwashing. Remember BP unveils a calculator to measure your carbon footprint?
In a similar vein, Tesco last year announced a target to increase herbal sales by 300%. With no overall meat reduction ambition, it is simply a food store committing to sell more food.
The Independent Panel on Climate Change is clear that cutting back on meat is fundamental to tackling the climate crisis: “Plant-based diets can cut emissions by up to 50%. In a recent Mighty Earth poll, 87% of people said supermarkets should give up on forest destroyers. There has never been a greater mandate for change. The question is, which supermarket will lead forward?