The world’s appetite for meat continues to grow, with profound implications for the environment, human health and animal welfare. The production of animal-based foods has been found to be responsible for at least 16.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions. If meat consumption continues on current trends, scientists have found, it will be impossible to keep global warming below 1.5°C, and difficult to stay below 2°C. The sector is also a key driver of biodiversity loss.

Yet, despite the robust evidence that we need to shift to more plant-based diets, both for the planet and to address a slew of health risks, policy-makers have been reluctant to adopt measures to scale down meat production and consumption. Indeed, many governments in high meat-consuming countries continue to support industrialized meat production through subsidies, promotional campaigns, and more.

The reasons are understandable: Meat supply chains support many livelihoods, meat is an important part of many people’s diets and cultural traditions, and there are powerful business interests involved – meat is a US$1 trillion industry. But rather than continue to postpone the inevitable, a new SEI report argues, governments should move swiftly to plan and implement a just transition. Recognizing that meat consumption is highly inequitably distributed globally, the report focuses on high-income countries, which have very high levels of meat consumption.

“Climate change, the biodiversity crisis, human health and animal welfare – there are many urgent reasons to act. In some countries, such as the Netherlands, we’re already seeing efforts to scale down meat production, but many are still avoiding the issue. It is time to engage proactively with stakeholders to start moving towards more socially just, sustainable and humane food systems.”

— Cleo Verkuijl, lead author of the report and a scientist in SEI’s U.S. Center.

“Whatever the transition looks like, it will involve tricky issues, with winners and losers – not just financially, but culturally and socially too,” added co-author Jonathan Green, a senior researcher at SEI York. “That is precisely why we need to start envisioning and planning our food future now, so we can mitigate the worst harms and redress existing imbalances. Otherwise, the transition will be more abrupt, and worst of all, the impacts will fall disproportionately on those who are already marginalized.”

What does it mean to have a just transition in the meat sector?

The concept of just transitions has become a pillar of climate policy, leading governments to prioritize job training and economic development in communities where coal mines are shut down, for instance, and to consider the disparate impacts of higher energy prices on low-income households. Over time, the concept has expanded beyond mitigating harm, to seek transformative change and correct past injustices.

Five guiding principles

The first step in ensuring a just transition is to determine who will be affected, so those stakeholders can be engaged in planning the transition. Focusing on industrialized meat production and consumption in high-income countries, the study identifies five key stakeholder groups: consumers, farmers, meat industry workers, communities and companies. Based on a review of each group’s current situation and likely concerns, the authors identify five principles to guide a just transition away from high levels of meat production and consumption:

  1. Phase down existing policies, programs and fiscal support that promote industrial-scale meat production and high levels of consumption.
  2. Support alternatives to industrially produced meat that are environmentally and socially sustainable, and compatible with animal welfare.
  3. Ensure inclusive and participatory planning processes to empower stakeholders to co-design solutions that meet their needs.
  4. Provide support to vulnerable groups to help offset impacts of a transition, such as social protection measures and economic diversification programmes.
  5. Address the root causes of injustices in the meat sector, including economic exploitation, disparate environmental impacts, poverty and marginalization.
Graphics showing guiding principles for a just transition in the meat sector

Illustration: SEI

Inspire policy-makers to tackle urgent challenge

With negotiators at the Sharm El-Sheikh Climate Change Conference (COP27) focusing on ways to raise ambition, and a major biodiversity conference just weeks ahead, the report’s authors said they hope their analysis will inspire policy-makers to tackle the urgent challenge of transforming food systems.

“There is no question that high-income countries need to cut down on meat consumption and move away from industrialized meat production,” Verkuijl said. “Experience in the energy sector shows that a just transition approach can lead to more equitable and sustainable outcomes. Time is short, so proactive just transition planning for our food systems needs to start now.”