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How to get people to eat less meat?

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In video in which at the beginning of July he invited the Spaniards to eat less meat, for reasons of health and environmental impact, the Minister of Consumption Alberto Garzón had a calm tone, cited reliable data and statistics, and suggested moderate diet changes. In Spain, however, his appeal has provoked very critical reactions among politicians and in the press, even with resentful or derisive tones.

It is not surprising for those who do not eat meat, or eat very little of it, and have found themselves explaining their reasons to other people: the consumption of meat is a topic on which many warm up to support their point of view. Meat-based dishes, starting with those eaten on the occasion of parties and anniversaries, are part of the cultural heritage of families and communities. Furthermore, for many territories – Spanish but also Italian – the meat industry is an important economic sector. Finally, discourses on meat often bring up ethical questions about the way we treat animals and how we consider them: this is also why they can arouse different feelings. For all these reasons it is not easy to get someone to eat less meat.

According to Jan Dutkiewicz, a Harvard University animal rights scholar, Garzón’s approach, however reasonable, cannot work. In an article on The New Republic Dutkiewicz explained why and how we could try to change the eating habits of those who eat a lot of meat, especially in countries like Spain and the United States, where they eat a lot.

Reducing the consumption of meat is one of the most cited individual behaviors to combat climate change on a personal level. According to the IPCC, the UN Climate Change Committee, agriculture, livestock and deforestation produce 24 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Cattle emit large quantities of methane with burps and flatulence and all farm animals produce nitrous oxide with their excrement. Furthermore, the expansion of soybean crops used to feed livestock is one of the reasons why the Amazon rainforest is being cleared.

«Changing what people eat is extremely difficult», writes Dutkiewicz: «Who should lead the change? Individuals, governments or companies? Can a balance be found between consumer freedom and rules? And how can rational policies be pursued taking into account the cultural, national and personal significance of food? ».

The most used approach so far by governments, NGOs and companies to provoke changes in people’s eating habits consists above all of information campaigns that contain suggestions on how to eat in a healthier and more sustainable way. It is a strategy that does not limit personal freedom to choose how to feed and therefore cannot be criticized as an imposition from above. An example of this strategy are the labels that indicate with which farming techniques a product of animal origin was obtained. Another example cited by Dutkiewicz is the choice of the American recipe site Epicurious not to publish new recipes for dishes containing beef.

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The promotion and dissemination of scientific studies on nutrition is also part of this kind of unobtrusive persuasion strategies. In 2019 a report produced by the NGO EAT together with the authoritative scientific journal Lancet proposed a series of changes in the global diet to improve people’s health and increase the sustainability of food production. The report recommends a doubling in the consumption of foods such as fruit, vegetables, legumes and nuts, and a reduction of more than 50 percent in the world consumption of products such as added sugars and red meat, “mainly by reducing the excess consumption in richer countries ».

According to the report, the optimal version of the “planetary health diet” is not to consume red meat at all, as long as you get the right amount of protein from other sources. Not wanting to give up this food entirely, he recommends an average consumption of 14 grams per day, that is 98 grams per week. Considering beef only and the per capita consumption of different countries according to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), for the average American following the planetary health diet would lead to a reduction in meat consumption. bovine by 87 percent. For the average Spaniard, on the other hand, a reduction of 60 per cent and for the average Italian – who eats less meat than the Spaniard in general, but more beef – by 67 per cent.

– Read also: How to get more vegetables to eat

The problem, says Dutkiewicz, is that the indications of EAT-Lancet, as well as many other similar initiatives, are not really effective: “Consumers may also say they want to make more informed or sustainable decisions, but they tend to follow their own habits when they walk the aisles of supermarkets. And having more information does not necessarily cause a change in behavior, on the contrary: it could have the opposite effect ».

Dutkiewicz refers to the so-called “meat paradox” described by various psychologists: many people eat meat even though they think that the treatment of animals in factory farms is cruel and inhumane. It happens because there are justifications for continuing to do so.

Furthermore, information campaigns are often harshly criticized despite not having a prescriptive approach. To be precise, they are attacked as if they had it: they are accused of wanting to reduce people’s freedom of choice. It happened after the publication of the EAT report-Lancet, criticized online with the hashtag # yes2meat, (# Sìallacarne), used in more than 8 million tweets, and after the announcement of the choice of Epicurious.

According to Dutkiewicz, better results could be obtained by increasing people’s freedom of choice instead. To do this, it is necessary to eliminate the circumstances that in fact influence their decisions in an unconscious way, such as displaying meat snacks near the checkout counters of supermarkets, an area that facilitates impulse purchases – in the United States you can often find strips of dried meat.

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Another way to encourage alternative choices would be to increase the variety of dishes on restaurant menus, or to always offer a variant without animal proteins. Some fast food restaurants have begun to do so, both in the United States and in Italy: the Bun Burger chain, for example, which is present in Turin and Milan, offers all its sandwiches both in the classic version with beef or chicken, and in the version with Beyond Meat’s veggie burgers.

An ad from the fast food chain Carl’s Jr. that also offers sandwiches containing veggie burgers, on June 10, 2019 (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

A 2019 study from the University of Cambridge, based on the analysis of more than 90,000 meal choices, found that by proportionately doubling the vegetarian options offered, sales of vegetarian dishes increased between 41 and 79 percent. For another 2019 study, carried out by a group of Danish researchers, participants in three conferences were divided into two groups for meals: the first was offered a non-vegetarian buffet with the possibility of asking for a vegetarian alternative, the second a meatless buffet and the possibility of requesting dishes that contained it instead. In all three conferences, more than 86 percent of people in the second group ate vegetable dishes, compared to 2, 8 and 12 percent of people in the first group.

For Dutkiewicz, the widening of choice could have an “even greater impact” if it were carried out in institutional environments frequented by large numbers of people, such as schools, which would also have an educational role: “Changes of this type can modify both habits of individuals who have an influence on the food economy ”.

As far as schools are concerned, however, it is easy to find strong opposition. It happened in Lyon, France, last February: the City had decided that school canteens would offer, on a temporary basis, only vegetarian meals, given that, with the physical distancing required by the coronavirus rules, they serve two different options of lunch would have been too complicated. Many farmers had protested and even the Minister of Agriculture Julien Denormandie had criticized the decision of the municipality.

Public institutions can try to change people’s eating habits in various ways, with rules (as in the case of the Lyon schools), incentives and taxes, but it is difficult to find balanced solutions that are not harshly criticized when it comes to meat.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) approves the introduction of forms of taxation on food products with a high sugar content, such as snacks and carbonated drinks, because there are studies that have shown their effectiveness. Other studies suggest that a red meat tax could work as well, but would likely be very unpopular, even more so than the dessert taxes introduced in some parts of the world. Other policies unpopular for many, such as the ban on smoking indoors, have since been accepted over time, and perhaps this could also be the case for beef, but that is not necessarily the case.

Furthermore, both in the United States and in the European Union, governments have always supported livestock farming, so introducing a tax on meat consumption would contradict a deeply rooted principle of economic policy.

In mid-July, research commissioned by the government was published in the UK suggesting how to change the diet of British citizens to make it healthier and more sustainable: it suggests reducing the consumption of sugar, salt and meat, but only for the first two products. the authors recommend the introduction of a tax, believing that imposing one on meat would be “politically impossible”. Instead, to reduce meat consumption, they recommend promoting plant-based meals and encouraging the production of alternative protein sources.

This prudent approach, according to Dutkiewicz, could work but should also be accompanied by strategies to make the “planetary health diet” affordable for all social strata.

In the meantime, individual choices could significantly contribute to a change in people’s eating habits, says Dutkiewicz, both because our behaviors are influenced by those of those who live around us, and because of the mechanism of supply and demand. “Demands for veggie burgers like Beyond’s tell retailers and restaurateurs they need to stock these products, and will then push them to promote them, getting other people to try them.”

According to a survey published in May by the European Investment Bank (EIB), 66 percent of EU citizens have reduced their meat consumption to combat climate change. In Italy this percentage reaches 76 per cent, the highest value in the Union, while in Spain it stops at 61 per cent, which in any case is higher than that of the United States (59 per cent), the first country in the world. for per capita meat consumption, and the United Kingdom (56 per cent), which instead has similar consumption to the Italian ones according to FAO data. These data suggest that there is scope for a general change in habits.

In conclusion, Dutkiewicz thinks that convincing people to eat less meat requires both individual behaviors and institutional policies, probably different from country to country. However, he also believes that in order to achieve true global food change there will inevitably be clashes and we will have to deal with them.

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