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Reducing meat consumption – how?

News Section Icon Published 15/08/2012


Here at Compassion in World Farming, we’re in the behavioural-change business. Part of that behavioural change involves eating smaller amounts of higher-quality meat – from a health, financial and environmental perspective, it’s a no-brainer. But what’s the background to this idea and how can we achieve large-scale change?

The problem of meat overconsumption

When you look at the overwhelming scientific evidence regarding the environmental and social costs of factory farming (and indeed livestock farming in general), one solution springs to mind immediately – Eat. Less. Meat. (particularly in the Western world, where consumption levels are much higher, per capita). They’re three simple words, but they represent one idea that’s fraught with complexity.

From being anti-industry to pushing a nanny-state mentality, those who espouse the idea of eating less meat are often met with serious rebuttals. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently committed a very public and embarrassing backtrack of their support for eat less meat campaign Meatless Monday after some well-placed lobbying from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association1. This is one hot potato of a topic, that’s for sure.

Changing times

Despite the complexities involved, we believe that eating less meat can only be a good thing; it’s good for our health, it’s good for our wallets and it’s good for the planet. And, thankfully, many agree. We’re seeing less and less of the hackneyed views showcased in this somewhat bizarre video featuring Antipodean actor Sam Neill (the film suggests that there is a human need to eat red meat and that we should eat it three to four times a week, which is almost certainly over the recommended limit if the featured portion sizes are anything to go by):

The statistics appear to back up this theory. In a recent New York Times blog post2, Mark Bittman identifies a number of trends that suggest a general decline in US meat consumption:

  • The Values Institute at DGWB Advertising and Communications just named the rise of "flexitarianism" as one of its top five 2012 consumer-health trends (check out our recent blog post about flexitarianism)
  • In an survey of 1,400 members, more than one-third of home cooks said they ate less meat in 2011 than in 2010
  • Back in June, a survey found that 50 percent of American adults said they were aware of the Meatless Monday campaign, with 27 percent of those aware reporting that they were actively reducing their meat consumption

And according to Time3 (quoting USDA figures), the average American will eat 165.5 lbs. of beef and poultry in 2012 – a 12% decline compared to 2007.

We did a little digging of our own on the Google News Archive, and found that the number of results for the phrase "less meat" increased between 2010/11 and 2011/12 (to date), from 114 to 886 – a rise of 777%.

It’s hard to prove the true cause, of course. It’s highly likely that the recession is helping to persuade people to cut their meat spend. But you might assume that many people would just switch to cheaper meat, not buy less of it altogether. We think that the figures point to the start of a genuine shift in how meat is viewed; as being part of a balanced diet rather than the diet.

Creating actual change

While there’s a general lack of data to support the theory that meat consumption is dropping worldwide, it’s clear that the idea is gathering pace. That’s a great thing. Many of us at Compassion in World Farming like our meat as much as the next person, but we still see huge advantages in eating smaller amounts of higher-quality meat. The big question for us is how we can promote this change further? To provide some inspiration, here are a few examples:

Cut out meat on a Monday

Two major campaigns have arisen around the concept of cutting out meat at the start of the week: Meatless Monday and Meat Free Monday. Both have big-name backers, including Oprah Winfrey and Paul McCartney, respectively.

The idea for Meatless Monday (and presumably Meat Free Monday) is an interesting one, and based on fairly basic psychology. According to the Meatless Monday website4, Monday is the day that we "move from the freedom of the weekend back to the structure of work or school. We set our intentions for the next six days. We plan ahead and evaluate progress. From an early age we internalize this rhythm. And studies suggest we are more likely to maintain behaviours begun on Monday throughout the week."

And there’s evidence that this can work. According to Business Green5, "in the year since food-service giant Sodexo launched its Meatless Monday program, many of its cafeteria sites have served more vegetable offerings and seen meat purchases decline... Of the 245 sites that responded to the survey, 74% offer Meatless Monday. Among those sites, 49% have seen customers' vegetable purchases go up, and 30% saw lower meat purchases".

Find humour in unexpected places

We love Do the Green Thing – a "not-for-profit public service that inspires people to lead a greener life. With the help of brilliant videos and inspiring stories from creative people and community members around the world, Green Thing focuses on seven things you can do – and enjoy doing". One of their focus areas is "Go Easy on the Meat"6, and our favourite video is the organisation’s (loose) Pulp Fiction pastiche, which combines a serious message with simple visuals and adult humour:

Let money do the talking

If talking fails to do the trick, you can always try a good ol’ fiscal incentive. But don’t expect it to be easy. Despite the fact that a myriad of "everyday" products are already taxed – from fuel to alcohol to nicotine – the mere mention of schemes that involve the public spending more are, more often than not, met with scepticism and anger (particularly in these cash-strapped times). In illustration, here’s a PETA spokesperson telling Fox News about the potential benefits of a meat tax:

The meat of the matter

There are clearly many different ways to try and encourage a reduction of meat consumption. All present their own challenges and opportunities. We’ll be looking at developing an eat less meat campaign in the near future. What do you think about these (or other) campaigns? What works for you? What turns you off?

Our sources

  1. New York Times (2012), No Meatless Mondays at the USDA
  2. New York Times (2012) We're Eating Less Meat - Why?
  3. Time (2012), The Meatless (and Less Meat) Revolution
  4. Meatless Monday (2012), Why Monday?
  5. Business Green (2012), How Sodexo Got its Customers to Eat Less Meat
  6. Do the Green Thing (2012), Easy on the Meat

Huge thanks to the National Cancer Institute for the image (cc)


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