How Do You Convince People to Eat Less Meat?

Susan S. Johnson

It’s a good illustration of the way policymakers often self-edit when it comes to such a fraught topic. The problem is that, while this approach is politically pragmatic, it is naïve to expect that clinging to the lower rungs of the Nuffield Ladder can lead to even the Food Strategy’s […]

It’s a good illustration of the way policymakers often self-edit when it comes to such a fraught topic. The problem is that, while this approach is politically pragmatic, it is naïve to expect that clinging to the lower rungs of the Nuffield Ladder can lead to even the Food Strategy’s suggested 30 percent reduction in meat consumption, let alone the EAT-Lancet standard.

But the problem isn’t only that policymakers are wary of inviting pro-meat backlash. It’s also that virtually all governments subsidize and promote meat production and consumption. The EU, despite its Green Deal commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050, has spent millions of Euros on a “Beefatarian” advertising campaign, and both Europe and the USA support animal agriculture through extensive subsidies and supports. Changing this dynamic—a status quo in which politicians pick up points by slamming vegetarians while support for the meat industry is baked into countless national budgets—will require a multifaceted approach.

Incentivizing the production of alternatives in addition to, or ideally instead of, harmful products like beef, as the U.K. Food Strategy does with its support for alternative proteins, is one good option. But such support should include not only plant-based or cell-based “meat alternatives” but also plants as alternatives to meat. A recent study published in Global Food Security, for instance, shows that humble legumes, with the right government push, could provide a far more sustainable and diverse source of protein than meat. Creating opportunities for food access is also crucial, including quite simply pushing for higher incomes, through policies like minimum wage laws to allow consumers a greater range of options and creating more robust nutritional assistance programs. An EAT-Lancet-compliant diet, for instance, is readily within financial reach for most people in the global north but far too expensive for over a billion people worldwide.

Usually when collective-action problems are discussed, a crude dichotomy emerges between individual action and policy. Many commentators suggest that individual action is effectively meaningless and collective action is where all political efforts should be directed. (After all, what does it matter if I eat a burger or chuletón now and then, when what matters is challenging the meat industry and the political-economic structures that enable it?) But with food—intensely personal, with individuals voting with their forks multiple times per day—individual change is worth revisiting. It may matter little in the aggregate if any one individual changes their diet, much as it matters little in the greater scheme of things if they drive an SUV or vote in elections. But changes to individual actions taken together can play two important roles. The first is norm change.

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