A dispute over meat consumption in Spain over the past month is just the latest flare-up of debate across Europe as the continent struggles to make its famous cuisines more sustainable.
Food is inextricably intertwined with the national identity of continental European countries; a good steak, with perfect French fries stacked next to him; a thin wafer dish carpaccio, drizzled with dressing or aged olive oil; wurst, served with good mustard; Iberian Ham mixed with creamy white fat.
Europeans love meat and eat a lot of it. Approximately 1.5 kg per week is consumed by the average citizen of the EU27 – that’s twice the world average.
But it is also clear that if there is any hope of reducing the impact of global warming, that level of consumption will have to fall rapidly. Greenpeace estimates which will have to drop by 70% by the end of the decade, and down to 300g by 2050. This translates (since not all the meat that leaves the slaughterhouses ends up being sold or consumed) in that each European actually eats, per week, an amount of meat equivalent to about two good-sized hamburgers.
The response to this news? Unenthusiastic, to say the least. Politically, it seems almost impossible to balance priorities for environmental action with the influence of often powerful agricultural lobbyists and the unrealistic expectations of populations accustomed to consuming large amounts of cheap meat.
In Spain, for example, which has the dubious honor of being the EU Member State with the largest supply of meat per capita in the bloc (more than 100 kg per person per year), the Minister of Consumption, Alberto Garzón, was embroiled in a national row debate last July after calling on his compatriots to eat less meat for the good of the environment and their own bodies. “Our health and the health of our families is at stake,” he said. “Eating too much meat is bad for our health and bad for the planet.”
Within hours, he had been slapped not only by the agriculture minister, but also by the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez. When asked what he thought of Garzón’s plea, Sánchez observed, “Personally speaking, a medium rare steak is hard to beat.”
There is evidence that many Europeans are taking the issue seriously. a recent one survey showed Almost half (46%) of European consumers now eat less meat than before, while 40% plan to reduce their meat consumption in the future.
The EU-backed study of more than 7,500 people in 10 European countries found that a third actively sought to minimize their meat consumption, with 73% of that group saying they had “substantially” reduced their meat consumption in recent years. months.
but in his last document, the European Commission suggests that, despite clear and growing public awareness of the importance of sustainability, per capita meat consumption in the EU is likely, if left to its own devices, to drop by just over 3 kg per year.
The intervention of the State, then, will be essential, but, judging by the example of Spain, difficult. Garzón told The Guardian again in December that people needed to reduce their meat consumption, contrasting meat from traditional extensive farming with that produced on intensive mega-farms, but parts of Garzón’s interview were seized on by the conservative Popular Party. and far-right Vox. party, who have demanded his resignation for what they describe as an unforgivable attack on the important Spanish meat industry and the quality of its exports.
The Minister of Consumer Affairs has remained true to his words, accusing “the lobby of certain large companies that promote polluting mega-farms” of deliberately misrepresenting what he said. His comments, moreover, do not differ much from the official government policy. The Ministry for Ecological Transition wants extensive production systems to be promoted and well-adapted native breeds to be used more. The agriculture minister has praised small family farms and some regional governments have already acted to limit intensive farming.
In Germany, traditionally one of the EU’s largest per capita consumers of animal products, meat consumption has been steadily declining over the past two decades, but here, too, politics is touchy.
The Green Party, part of the new tripartite coalition with the centre-left SPD and the liberal FDP, might have been expected to rush in to accelerate the downward trend, but so far it has been held back.
The hesitation stems from a painful political experience. The Greens in Germany have suffered in recent years from being seen as a ban Party, intent to ban the joys of life. A 2013 “vegetable day” initiative for meat-free days in state-subsidized canteens prompted tabloid Bild to complain that “the Greens want to take our meat away”.
Instead, the Green Party has used its first weeks in power to launch a less political exposure campaign against junk meat being sold at junk prices. The new agriculture minister, Cem Özdemir, told Bild that the Germans were losing out because food quality and prices were too low.
Garbage prices, often imposed by all-powerful supermarket chains, he said, “bankrupt farms, prevent animal welfare, promote species extinction and are a burden on the climate. I want to change that.” The price of food must, he said, echoing the findings of a commission created by the previous government, reflect the “ecological truth” and consumers must get used to paying a fair price for better quality.
But this approach is also far from universally popular: the new government’s attack on cheap meat was criticized by the Paritätische Gesamtverband, an umbrella group for Germany’s social welfare organisations, which argues that higher food prices should go accompanied by compensation payments for those with low incomes. income
And in Italy, Environment Minister Roberto Cingolani sparked a heated debate last year by saying that excessive meat consumption was bad for health and the environment, adding that encouraging Italians to eat less meat would be essential to your plans.
“Changing our diet will have the combined benefit of improving public health, decreasing water use and producing less COtwoCingolani said. The farmers responded immediately, saying that Italy’s annual per capita meat consumption is among the lowest in Europe and that meat was an important part of a balanced diet.
Activists like Luca Mercalli, a well-known meteorologist, keep the debate alive, arguing that better quality meat produced closer to home and eaten in smaller quantities would make a significant difference to the environment.
“A proportion of Italians are sensitive to the issue and have changed their diet, either because of concerns about the weather or for dietary reasons,” Mercalli said. “The problem in Italy is that the debate often becomes toxic, with vegetarians becoming very critical of carnivores, which in turn alienates 90% of the population.”
The onus should be on the government to provide clearer information, he said. “The message should be: eat less meat, but when you do, buy locally produced meat that is more sustainable. Even if you pay more, eating better quality meat once a week is much better than eating a cheap hamburger every day.”
Meat consumption in France has also been constantly falling, with surveys that suggest half of the population has reduced its consumption of meat in the last three years and that 30% would like to continue doing so in the next three. And yet, howls of indignation greeted the launch of the national low carbon strategy, adopted in 2020, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, which represent 20% of the country’s total, with 80% generated by livestock, by 19% by 2030 and 46% by 2050.
EU countries that have tried to implement concrete meat reduction policies have faced instant backlash. The Danish government was forced in 2020 to repeal a ban on state canteens serving meat for two days a week after opposition from unions and the food industry, and now the government has shifted its focus to boosting meat production. non-meat foods, approving a climate deal which features the largest EU investment in plant-based research and development, including an annual fund to support the transition to dietary change at national level. In the Netherlands, in a bid to prioritize solving major environmental problems long caused by its intensive pig and other farms, the new government introduces a minister for nature and nitrogen affairs, Christianne van der Wal -Zeggelink.
And all this is no less true for the European Commission itself, which struggles with the incompatibility of the ambitious plans to reduce carbon emissions and the vast subsidies of the common agricultural policy that account for nearly a third of the EU budget. Greenpeace has break down the numbers and estimates that a fifth of the entire EU budget is spent on livestock.
As recently as 2020, the EU was still spending money to promote meat consumption with a controversial and frankly a bit crazy advertising campaign. exhorting people to become Beefatarians. “If the sound of meat sizzling on the grill makes you cry, you’re a true Beefatarian,” the ad coos. Confused? It’s only going to get worse.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism