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  • Adika Witoelar

Moving on from Eating Meat

Meat, specifically red meat, is continuing to rise in demand as the years go by, especially in high-growth developing countries. Food security and climate change researcher Laura Wellesley has stated that most developing countries are going through a process labeled as "protein transition," which occurs when income increases lead to increased meat consumption. This is a significant problem as increasing meat consumption requires massive production, and most of the production process currently practiced is not sustainable and contributes to climate change. The meat industry has been calculated to contribute around 15% of global total greenhouse gases (GHG) and utilizes a huge amount of natural resources such as land and water. For example, producing one kilogram of beef can take up to around 1800 gallons of water. Other types of protein, such as chicken and pork, use significantly fewer resources. Not to mention that some existing crops, which can amount to around the same nutritional value as meat, can be produced in a much more sustainable process. With already existing alternatives and options, why is it still difficult for most people to move away from meat?

From a study done by The Chair of Sustainability Science at the University of Greifswald, Susanne Stoll-Kleemann, it is found out that there are huge barriers concerning why people would not move to alternatives. Interestingly, most barriers are connected to human behavior, in the sense that it resides deep within our current cultural and social norms, intertwined with people’s sociodemographic and socioeconomic factors. It is also linked to how people perceive meat as "better" and more nutritious than other foods, even though it may not be entirely true. Another significant barrier is that most countries’ populations have not yet realized how meat contributes to changes within the climate and are lacking the necessary information to link the two. Economic conflicts also exist, as meat is continually in high demand, it is in no interest of producers to not meet consumer demands. Fortunately, the reduction of meat consumption in peoples' diets have been gaining traction, resulting in an increasing number of policymakers in businesses and governments starting to act against overwhelming meat consumption. Even with massive barriers to solutions, it is important that policymakers from governments and businesses continue to construct policies and trends that reduce meat consumption to aid consumers in realizing its negative effects on our climate and to incrementally influence their individual actions.

To start, it is key that policies from both firms and governments must be non-coercive and encompass more than just dietary restrictions. Convincing meat consumers to reduce their meat consumption simply from the dietary restrictions of meat would not be an effective solution, especially in developing countries. This is because existing social, psychological, cultural barriers make it difficult for people to cut meat from their diets. An example is that meat consumption in China is often associated with displaying wealth, relating meat consumption to socioeconomic factors. Thus, convincing people to have a dietary restriction on meat would be a highly difficult task as in essence, it limits some consumers in presenting their wealth to other people. This relates to how developing countries are experiencing a protein transition, wherein an increase in income would lead them to consume more meat, which is considered a luxury food. Another example would be Brazil, where meat is a prominent cultural food. In Brazil, meat-eating is an important part of their culture of having a barbecue over the weekends to connect and socialize with people. This presents a key resistance in the act of reducing meat intake in Brazil as reducing meat intake would require them to sacrifice their tradition, which might hurt their social and cultural activities. The two examples above exhibit how deeply embedded meat is in some of our existing social and cultural barriers, and how hard it would be to simply pin this on consumers.

Food researchers Sue Dibb & Ian Fitzpatrick stated “The trend towards ‘convenience’ has been a major influence on food purchasing habits, encouraged by lack of time, skills, or interest to cook”. Convenience is a necessity in the current market. Consumers would want to find the fastest and tastiest food to cook, while also being reasonably priced. In most developing countries, meat would be that food. Alternatives such as plant-based food are not yet the most convenient food to cook in the current market, as it is found that most people lack the skill or knowledge to cook these alternatives. This further demonstrates how cultural and social norms have created a perception that meat is a convenient food, almost a necessity in our meals. Normally, most packaged meals still include meat, as opposed to alternatives such as plant-based food In order to move towards a solution, policymakers (especially ones handling food companies) would need to turn alternatives of meat into a convenience food. These examples of cultural, social, and convenience barriers highlight the importance of constructing non-coercive policies that tackle not just dietary restrictions but structure them in a way that changes consumer perceptions. Though, constructing these types of policies would require a significant amount of work, with the help of numerous different actors that are contributing to the meat industry.

The solution to reducing meat consumption would need an active and continuous collaboration amongst governments, institutions, producers, and consumers. Collaboration between actors is needed to break the cycle of inertia - policy inaction brought upon by lack of public pressure and fear of disruption. Industries, institutions, and other sectors outside the government will need to collaborate with the government and be willing to learn from each other to assess and create policies that are most effective and early. Inaction presents one of the most challenging problems to tackle in the construction of policies. Businesses are driven by consumer demands, thus if food businesses decide to enact a policy that decreases meat consumption, it might be detrimental to the goal of the business and its performance. This will then act as a disincentive for policymakers inside food businesses to move towards the solution as it can reduce profits. There would need to be a working collaboration between consumers and businesses, where consumers would support the meat reduction policies brought upon by businesses–this could be through trends. Trends are an effective way to push this solution as it gets people talking, creating discourse among consumers regarding the problem. Fortunately, in recent years, the trend of reducing meat intake has started to gain traction. Some consumers are pushed to reduce their intake as they start to realize its effects on climate change and realize how unethical some processes are, incentivizing them to have meal plans that require less meat, mainly lamb and beef, and onto other alternatives. Though trends tend to die off in the long term, there will still be incremental effects that are achieved just through the idea of pushing the meat problem into public discourse. As consumers know more about the negative externalities of consuming meat, it would incentivize food producers to move away from meat as demand goes down, slowly breaking the cycle of inertia.

Mitigating climate change is a continuous process, and policies could help inspire consumers to avoid high-impact producers, which can then push producers to monitor and set more environmentally-friendly targets. A way to push this agenda forward as producers is to reduce animal-related food production and increase plant-based food productions, as animal-related production has the most effect on resource use.“Moving from current diets to a diet that excludes animal products has transformative potential, reducing food’s land use by 3.1 billion ha; food’s GHG emissions by 6.6 billion metric tons of CO2 … and scarcity-weighted freshwater withdrawals by 19% for a 2010 reference year.”

Moving away from animal-related products would reduce land and water use by a huge margin. It would also reduce GHG emissions by billions of metric tons. If these types of numerical evidence are diffused correctly and widely to consumers, some meat consumers would likely muster up a conscience to move away from meat. Theoretically, if a large enough number of people turn away from meat, then it would result in producers reducing meat as the market demands less of it. Effectively, it would push food producers and companies to set and monitor environmental targets as it would align with existing trends in meat reduction.

Climate Change – Meat Consumption Mitigation Framework

Fig. 1: This chart represents the possible steps that can be taken for an integrated solution framework to work between governments, businesses, researchers, and consumers

Fig. 1 illustrates the framework for a possible collaboration between researchers, governments, consumers, and businesses/firms. From the studies of Wellesley et al. and also from Poore, the framework essentially emphasizes the importance of an active and continuous collaboration between all these actors. The framework is to show that it needs to start from all four actors simultaneously, though some actors have more influence than others. Governments and Businesses might have more power in this space than the remaining actors because their actions directly affect the actions of the others Governments will need to continue funding researchers, scientists, and experts regarding their research and studies on possible solutions for reducing meat consumption. Researchers then promote solutions to both businesses and governments to inform them on what solutions are feasible and then the possible ways to enact them for consumers to follow. The consumer’s role in this framework is also highly important as they drive the businesses to move in certain directions and are a major stakeholder in the performance of a firm.

The main drawback derived from this framework is the assumption that all these actors are able to collaborate smoothly, and with a strong incentive to assist and help each other. This is not usually the case as most actors have their own personal incentives and motivations, creating obstacles when collaboration of all the actors is needed. A firm might have a difficult time being incentivized from turning away from meat production in developing countries because of the high demand and profits. This problem then turns to the consumers, which also have a responsibility to reduce their meat intake but will also have a difficult time due to socioeconomic, cultural, and convenience factors, as explained above.

Engaging with consumers by developing their understanding of feasible and realistic mitigating solutions would allow policymakers to prepare more grounded and assertive policies designed specifically to initiate and encourage meat reduction practices. By publicizing realistic solution proposals researched by food experts and climate scientists, meat consumers would eventually realize how feasible it is to move towards alternatives and away from meat. This would then allow policymakers within the government to assert policies that are more aggressive. Tackling on consumers’ financial incentives, product labeling systems, and moderating grocery and produce stores are examples of more aggressive policy models that have been proven to work in a certain sample size. These policy models demonstrate how collaboration is needed for the solution to succeed. Consumers would need to be incentivized by governments and food producers to consume in a market that has less meat; this can include chicken or other red meat alternatives, plant-based protein such as Beyond Meat, and vegetables.

Despite barriers and challenges, the most effective solutions will need to come from continuous and active collaboration amongst numerous actors. Whether it be dietary-based, or policies restricting certain production processes, it is important that all actors work together towards the same goal. Policymakers from governments, businesses, and institutions would need to collaborate with meat consumers and producers to construct non-coercive policies and continue trends or movements that encourage people to reduce their meat consumption. In developing countries, it is important to diffuse information concerning the negative effects of meat consumption as quickly as possible for it to spread amongst its citizens as most developing countries are experiencing a ‘protein transition.’ Turning barriers into opportunities is the first step towards a solution that could have a huge impact, but it would require further study, research, and implementing models in developing countries.

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