Processed meat was classified in 2015 by the World Health Organisation as a group 1 carcinogen. Additionally, there is robust evidence from the World Cancer Research fund’s Continuous Update Project that consumption of meat, fish and dairy products can influence cancer risk. There is convincing evidence processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer, with red and processed meat potentially increasing the risk of lung, pancreatic and nasopharynx cancers. Similarly dairy products can reduce the risk of some cancers, however may increase risk of prostate cancer. 

For the health community, food is no longer simply an issue of healthy diets. The food on our plates not only impacts our individual health, but also has significant implications for the health of the planet upon which human health is reliant. A more sustainable food system can help us to be healthier, avert dangerous climate change and restore nature.

Changing diets to healthier patterns with less meat is a win-win strategy for improving health outcomes and supporting nature. In the UK our diets are high in meat, we consume over twice the global average. Lower meat diets have positive effects in reducing the risk of bowel cancer. Furthermore, by eating less meat we can make space in our diets for healthy foods we don’t eat enough of, such as more pulses and nuts, wholegrains, fruits and vegetables. Shifting to diets rich in plant foods has significant public health benefits, as increasingly recognised in dietary guidelines.

A ‘less and better’ meat approach has clear benefits for the planet. At EU level, a 50% reduction would have substantial benefits for nature and environment, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 25-40% and polluting nitrogen by 40%, and use 23% less cropland for food production per person. Choosing meat from ‘better’ production systems supports farming in better tune with nature, with fewer inputs and animals. This delivers many benefits, such as better animal welfare, improved soil quality and limiting our reliance on animal feed implicated in deforestation.

Creating an enabling food environment

People can only make healthy and sustainable food choices where they are available, so it is crucial that we create the right environment for people to eat better for themselves and the planet. This is a complex challenge which no one can achieve on their own. It requires the commitment of all actors, from government to restaurants and supermarkets, food producers and investors, that can shape the food environment to support better choices.

Eating Better, an alliance of over 60 civil society organisations, has mapped a way forward that has broad support. Our ‘Better by half: A roadmap to less and better meat and dairy’ presents a framework to make sustainable healthy diets the norm. It includes strategies ranging from transforming land use policy to making vegetables and ‘better’ meat affordable, from encouraging nature-friendly farming to putting more vegetables on menus or ready meals.  

Whether we can transform the food system to deliver healthy and sustainable food will have an impact on our ability to feed current and future generations. Eating ‘less and better’ meat is a step we can all take. If you are interested in systemic change, keep in touch with our work to catalyse shifts towards healthy and sustainable food and farming.

Elena Salazar is Campaigns Manager at Eating Better

Eating Better is a UK-based alliance of over 60 civil society organisations. We bring together expertise on public health, sustainable farming, food waste, social justice, animal welfare, environment and conservation.