What we eat matters to the planet and PRs must speak out! Says Lexington's Jennifer Lipman

Once, vegetarians and vegans faced a PR challenge; the butt of jokes about sandals and beards. Not anymore. 

Today, growing numbers are aware of the impact of agriculture on the environment and its contribution to emissions, while the conversation around reducing meat consumption to help us reach Net Zero is gaining traction.

In November, the UK will host COP26, and soon after, the Government is expected to respond to Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, which stated that ‘our current appetite for meat is unsustainable’. With Brexit having rewritten the map for UK agriculture, now is a pivotal moment.

Comms is crucial

But if we are going to address the impact of diet on the planet, good communication around food, farming and sustainability - rather than a culture war - will be key.

Society is divided on many issues, but there’s a danger that instead of having a grown up conversation about how to protect the planet, we have a politicised row, where advertisers play the meat sector against plant-based and where column inches are devoted to one ‘side’ demonising the other. We are already seeing meat producers concerned their products are being unfairly attacked and questions over whether there is sufficient scrutiny of the plant-based sector’s nutrition and sustainability claims.

As our report, Planting the future: A moment of change for UK food, finds, dietary choices often fall along partisan lines, with Conservative and Leave voters considerably less swayed by appeals to eat less meat. Whereas two-fifths of Remainers switch out meat at least once a month and 39% of Lib Dem and Labour voters do so, only a quarter of Leave voters do. Londoners and Gen Z are also more likely to select meat-free proteins. When it comes to a mooted meat tax, 68% of Conservative voters oppose this, compared to 39% of Labour voters.

Honesty is the policy

Those with a stake in this issue - which should be all of us - need to focus on getting the communications right to ensure this doesn’t just become another political football. In particular, the plant-based sector must avoid spin and clarify its sustainability and nutrition story with robust, evidence-based information, to generate trust among consumers.

For everyone in food and farming, it’s key that the focus is on a rounded conversation that factors in the broader supply chain picture, including the climate impacts of getting products from factory to plate.

By the same token, meat producers need to avoid stoking the fire, and acknowledge that plant-based food can and will play an increasingly key role in the UK food sector - but not necessarily at their expense.

Mind the knowledge gap

Lexington’s research found there is a knowledge gap, with no set understanding of what plant-based food is. Nearly a quarter think a product labelled plant-based is made from just fruit or vegetables, while 13% think it is largely made from plants but may contain meat or other animal products. Given this, there is a need for an accepted, agreed definition of what constitutes plant-based, whether this is synonymous with all vegan food, and whether this encompasses lab grown meat. And this needs to be backed up by a public education campaign as to what constitutes a healthy, sustainable diet.

All of this is about clear, measured communication to empower consumers to make informed choices and help them guard against PR spin or spurious claims. Because the road to Net Zero is long and winding, and we won’t get there without a national look at what’s on our plate.

We can’t run the risk that a vital message is obscured by heightened emotion. We need to avoid plant-based becoming an ‘us or them’ debate and the latest frontier in the culture wars.

So, no more stereotypes about vegans or carnivores - just good communications to enable a constructive public conversation that puts the planet first.

Written by Jennifer Lipman, director at strategic consultancy Lexington