To many Spaniards it was a sensible, responsible and rather overdue suggestion. But to others it was as heretical as a well-done steak, a lean slice of jamón or a barbecue of nothing but assorted veg.
This week Spain’s consumer affairs minister, Alberto Garzón, launched a campaign inviting people to consider reducing their meat consumption for the good of their health and the planet.
In a video he noted that Spain eats more meat than any other EU country, slaughtering 70 million pigs, cows, sheep, goats, horses and birds each year to produce 7.6m tonnes of meat. In a country facing rapid desertification in the coming decades, added Garzón, it made little sense to use 15,000 litres of water to raise each kilogram of meat.
He also pointed out that while the Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition recommends people eat between 200g and 500g of meat a week, the average Spaniard puts away more than 1kg.
“This doesn’t mean that we can’t have a family barbecue from time to time, just that we do it with a bit more restraint and that we make up for the days we eat meat by having days where we eat more salad, rice, pulses and vegetables,” the minister said.
“Our health and the health of our families is at stake. Eating too much meat is bad for our health and for the planet.”
Garzón acknowledged that many people did not have the time or money to avoid cheap, meat-based meals. He also said meat from smaller farms was healthier and far more sustainable than that produced by huge megafarms, which he said had a detrimental effect on the environment and local economies.
And although he stressed that he was merely asking people to think about the personal and environmental consequences of what they ate, and not telling them what to do, his comments were swiftly criticised by a fellow minister in the coalition government and by the livestock sector.
Luis Planas, the minister for agriculture, fishing and food, told Cadena Ser radio that the farming sector was being subjected to “profoundly unfair criticisms when it deserved respect for the honest work it does for both our food and our economy”. He said meat consumption had been decreasing over the past 10 years until the start of the Covid pandemic.
Six meat-producing associations wrote an open letter to Garzón saying they were stunned to see him and his ministry waging a campaign that “defamed” a sector that accounts for 2.5 million jobs and exports worth almost €9bn.
Asked for his thoughts on the campaign, Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, appeared to side with his agriculture minister, saying: “Speaking personally, a medium-rare steak is hard to beat.”
Others, meanwhile, struggled to see exactly what all the fuss was about. “Eating less meat is better for your health and better for the environment,” tweeted the Spanish food journalist Mikel López Iturriaga. “You can stuff your face with all the steak you want, but don’t get huffy because a minister tells you exactly the same thing as the World Health Organization, other institutions and countless other scientific experts in the field.”
In any case, he added, there was no need to resort to “eating kale with quinoa and chia”, thanks to Spain’s long and rich history of vegetarian dishes and others that use minimal meat. “Traditional Spanish cooking is full of dishes that contain very little or no meat: gazpachos, tortillas, rice dishes, pulses, pistos, salads, vegetables … Give those a go and you’ll be doing yourself and the planet a favour.”