Feeding the world, the way we do it today, is now the greatest single threat to the future of humankind.

I’ve spent the last three weeks gorging myself on a massive meat feast. Not physically, but cerebrally. Driven, as has so often been the case, by the insouciant ignorance of our recently defenestrated Prime Minister.

Back in July last year, the restauranteur Henry Dimbleby delivered his ‘National Food Strategy’ – as an ‘independent review’ for Government. In June this year, just six months late, the Prime Minister launched the Government’s new ‘Strategy’ in response to the Dimbleby Review.

Pretty much all of Dimbleby’s key recommendations were ignored: a 30% reduction in meat and dairy consumption; an expansion of free school meals; making fresh fruit and vegetables available for kids suffering from food poverty; a tax on products high in salt, sugar and fat. And so on.

To be sure, these are all cans full of juicy worms, but to hear them being kicked down the road with such contemptuous cynicism – on the grounds that it’s better to leave these things to people’s ‘personal responsibility’ – was no less infuriating for it being entirely predictable.

Dimbleby played it impressively cool, choosing to take out his ire on the Food and Drink Association instead – a point to which I will return at the end. But back to the matter of meat.

My meat feast consisted of a five-course extravaganza – with a spiky little digestif thrown in for good measure.

[1] ‘The Meat Paradox’, Rob Percival (Little, Brown)

[2] ‘Regenesis’, George Monbiot (Allen Lane)

[3] ‘Meat Planet’, Benjamin Wurgaft (University of California Press)

[4] ‘Sixty Harvests Left’, Philip Lymbery (Bloomsbury – to be published in August)

[5] ‘Feeding Britain from the Ground Up’, Sustainable Food Trust (https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/our-work/feeding-britain/)

(‘The Playbook’, Jennifer Jacquet (Allen Lane))

There is a significant amount of common ground between all these authors. For one simple reason: It is a truth now (almost) universally acknowledged by climate scientists and nutritionists alike that we are going to have to see very significant reductions in per capita meat consumption on a global basis to have any chance at all of meeting our climate targets. Dimbleby’s 30% is the barest minimum.

Lymbery, Monbiot and (to a lesser extent) Percival leave their readers in no doubt as to the extent of the horror story today’s meat-based ‘Global Standard Diet’ is now causing, from climate impacts, habitat loss, massive environmental pollution, grotesque cruelty inflicted on tens of billions of factory-farmed animals, antibiotic resistance, worsening health issues (obesity, diabetes) and so on.

However many times I’m obliged to revisit that balance sheet, I’m always astonished by just how shocking it really is. And still getting worse. Whereas human numbers are still growing by around 1% per annum, growth in livestock numbers is running at 2.4% per annum. ‘Peak meat’ is still a long, long way away.

However, despite a largely shared analysis and sense of urgency on that score, that’s where the consensus comes to a grinding halt! Five broad positions are explored:

[1] Plant-based vegetarianism (with limited dairy and eggs in the mix).

[2] Plant-based veganism (with no animal-based products whatsoever).

[3] Less meat but better meat (flexetarianism, as it were).

[4] Cultured, lab-grown meat.

[5] Microbial fermentation.

George Monbiot is the only one of the five who makes a compelling case for veganism, notwithstanding a rather affectionate admiration for some of the farmers he’s met committed to genuinely regenerative but still mixed farming systems. His scorn for a lot of the ‘less but better’ positioning is unremitting: organics, local production, rewilding, mob grazing, and, above all, ‘the elitism of pasture-fed meat’ all get the full Monbiot treatment.

Which made me wonder how Rob Percival and Patrick Holden (as one of the principal authors behind the Sustainable Food Trust’s ‘Feeding Britain from the Ground Up’) would rebut his often absolutist (indeed, extremist) criticisms. Between them, they make an equally compelling case for mixed farming systems and more flexitarian diets – with a significantly reduced dependence on animal-based protein, as well as the total elimination of all factory-farmed animals – reminding readers that roughly 80 billion animals are currently slaughtered every year.

The essence of the divide between vegetarians/vegans and the less/better brigade is all wrapped up in two complex dimensions: ethical issues, and paleoanthropological issues – delving into our origins as the most successful species on planet Earth to find answers to that all-important question: ‘Is meat a necessary part of our diet?’ Percival and Holden all believe the evidence tells us that it is – although they are all very careful to avoid criticism of those scientists who come to a different conclusion on the basis of that evidence.

That does not mean to say they are uncritical of what might be described as the militant wing of veganism – which is far less concerned about the science than it is about full-on emotional manipulation.

As CEO of Compassion in World Farming, Philip Lymbery gives us an animal-centric view of these ethical issues with the focus very much on factory farming and the impacts of today’s ‘cheap meat’ regime. But as the title of his book demonstrates, concerns about soil, water, biodiversity and the increasingly severe impacts of a warming planet on food production is what drives the narrative of his text.

Of the five, Rob Percival digs deepest into the ethical quandaries of meat-eating – the so-called ‘meat paradox’, addressing the contradiction between caring for animals and yet continuing to eat them. As he points out, this continues to generate all sorts of expressions of cognitive dissonance. His response to that is to roam widely across different cultures (the Inuit, the San, the Tukano in the Colombian Amazon) to see how other people navigate that paradox – and would appear to have done so over the last 30,000 years if the extraordinary cave paintings of animals in France and elsewhere are anything to go by.

‘Feeding Britain from the Ground Up’ from the Sustainable Food Trust is more immediately grounded, investigating what would happen if we aligned our diets with the optimum level of self-sufficiency in food production here in the UK – with much more mixed and sustainable farming (leaving more land for nature and trees), leading to a doubling in our consumption of fruit, vegetables, pulses and beans, a third less dairy, a halving of grain production, and a 75% decline in consumption of pork and chicken. Consumption of grass-fed beef and lamb would remain more or less where it is today.

The authors of this report (particularly Patrick Holden) are critical of the way in which advocates for veganism (and even vegetarianism) take no account of the specific climatic and ecological conditions here in the UK, and in particular of our rich grasslands. Only ruminants can digest those grasses and, in the process, help rebuild soil fertility.

All of which, of course, would have George Monbiot spitting with rage! He wants to see the end of all animal-based protein (including marine protein), and is not even particularly happy about plant-based alternatives – especially those that depend on soy-based alternatives. Intriguingly, his big (very big!) new thing is ‘a farm-free future’ in which ‘microbial fermentation’ becomes the norm, using genetically engineered microbes to supply the booming market for meat substitutes. (Quorn is probably the closest analogy we have to this at the moment, using fungal mycelium.)

Interestingly, he doesn’t even have much time for cell-based or cultured meats, where animal cells are ‘grown on’ in temperature controlled bioreactors, using fetal bovine serum as the growth medium, to produce ‘in vitro cellular equivalents’ to the ‘in vivo’ real thing. He devotes just half a page to this in the entire book: ‘The more I’ve read about cultured meat and fish, and all the complexities involved, the more I doubt this vision will come to pass.’

That would really please Patrick Holden, who hates the whole idea of cellular agriculture, while simultaneously disappointing Philip Lymbery, who is more hopeful about the potential for this technology.

But it certainly wouldn’t surprise Benjamin Wurgaft, whose ‘Meat Planet’ is something of an outlier in this collection, based on his fascinating exploration of the wider world of ‘cultured meats’ – going back to that moment in 2013 when Mark Post created the first artificial burger. It’s a quirky, philosophically rich investigation of so many of the undercurrents behind the whole ‘beyond meat’ hype.

Time to get back to that common ground with which I started.

[1] All these authors are excoriating in their condemnation of governments’ role blocking rather than supporting this so, so necessary transition, focusing on the hundreds of billions of dollars of our money (taxpayers’ money) that goes into sustaining today’s insupportably unsustainable food system.

[2] All these authors are more than a little nervous of the interest that Big Ag is now showing in both cellular agriculture and microbial fermentation. Will it be possible to disrupt a system dominated at every point by a tiny number of increasingly powerful incumbent players if those same players set out to take control of that disruption? (Answer: No.)

And so to my digestif. ‘The Playbook’ by Jennifer Jacquet is a hugely creative ‘insider manual’ for all Corporations seeking to deny good science, to thwart good policymaking, and to go on making as much profit as they possibly can before the whole meta-system (the global economy) implodes. It’s a spoof, but the scariest spoof you can possibly imagine.

‘The Playbook’ is only tangentially about the global food system, but with enough pointers to show how Big Ag (and Big Meat in particular) has absorbed all the lessons it needed from Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Tobacco and Big Every-other-hateful-self-serving-industry over the last 50 years.

Today’s Big Ag companies are already hard at it right now, denying, obfuscating, corrupting, lobbying, manipulating – following every chapter of the playbook – to ensure policymakers are always armed with a ready excuse not to act against them through timely, effective planet-and-people-protecting regulation. As Boris says, let’s just leave all that to ‘personal responsibility’.

A final thank you, therefore, to Henry Dimbleby for calling out the Food and Drink Administration (FDA) here in the UK after Boris Johnson’s craven surrender to the dark forces of Big Ag. Through the pages of The Grocer, he accused member companies of the FDA of exploiting the cost of living crisis (and the food inflation crisis in particular) to persuade Johnson to kick all those cans down the road by arguing that it would be the poor who would suffer most from a clear Government strategy addressing food poverty, obesity, ecological collapse and accelerating climate change. The hypocrisy is so shocking – but straight out of the playbook.

Hard to believe. Or rather, not hard to believe at all. Read ‘The Playbook’. Get to know your enemies. They’re going to be messing with your brain, your diets, and your very future for as long as you live.