If there is one food guaranteed to be increasingly under the sustainability spotlight in 2010 it will be meat.
Momentum grew last year with greater 'sustainability' scrutiny of both the production and consumption of meat, from the popular consumer idea of 'meat-free Monday's' or hard-hitting documentaries like Food, Inc, to increasingly heated debates over the contribution of livestock production to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and hence climate change.
But there is nothing new about meat production and consumption courting controversy: from food safety, factory farming and animal welfare, to the (ill) health effects of eating meat. But like so many other aspects of food, 'sustainability' threatens to tip the balance towards the 'perfect storm'.
In this area, meat faces a raft of sustainability challenges in addition to climate change: such as intensive livestock operations using large amounts of water, concern about waste from factory farming methods, the 'energy' inefficiency of meat as a foodstuff (it takes around 10 calories of feed to create one calorie of meat), or the environmental damage caused by clearing forests for pasture or inputs used in rearing livestock, and so on.
The climate change part of the sustainability challenge gained real traction in 2006 with the publication of the provocatively titled report Livestock's Long Shadow by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation which, among other facts, reported that livestock produced 18 percent of annual global GHG emissions.
Last year the WorldWatch Institute, the Washington D.C. based independent research organization on global sustainability, published research by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang suggesting this figure could be much higher: a whopping 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions.
Goodland and Anhang went as far as arguing that replacing livestock products with soy-based and other meat alternatives would be the best strategy for reversing climate change.
And it is the possible negative impact of livestock production in relation to climate change where the meat industry is looking for new approaches. Just last week the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health, the world's top authority in farm animal health with 175 member countries, said it was launching a new study into the role of meat in climate change. This study will be the first time in the organization's 85 year history that it has undertaken an environmental investigation. It is expected the results from the study will be out in the summer.
But there is a newer, and from an industry perspective, more worrying sustainability narrative around meat consumption emerging. This is a story-line I believe you can track that is starting to say if you, as a consumer, care about the future of the planet eating less meat is a 'moral' act contributing to the future of humanity. Eating less meat is an individual consumer action you can take to help save the environment and show you 'care' about your food choices. 'Uncaring' meat eating for many value-driven consumers will become taboo.
The consumption angle, from a different point-of-view, is starting to enter food policy discourse as well. For example, in the UK the Sustainable Development Commission, set up as the UK Government's independent watchdog on sustainable development, published its advice to Government on priority issues for a sustainable diet. In their report, published December 11th last year, they included advice that reducing meat and dairy consumption was one way to make a big contribution towards improving consumer health and reducing the environmental impacts of the food system.
So this year look out for a lot of 'fight-back' from the meat industry, but treat with caution as this will need to avoid any charges of 'greenwashing'. At the same time look out for the business opportunities and marketing innovations within the meat or related sectors that work creatively with a new and sustainable story of meat.