Thursday, 1 June 2017

Eat Less Meat: Strategies for Reducing Meat Consumption to cut Global GHG Emissions

Approximately 18% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are produced from livestock1,  the guiltiest emitters being ruminant animals such as cattle and sheep2. It is approximated that 1kg of beef produces 14-32kgCO2e compared to 3.7-6.9CO2e for 1kg of chicken and 0.3-1.5CO2e for 1kg of lentils3,4,5. These discrepancies in emissions highlight reduction in global meat consumption as an area with a large scope for mitigation. However, the mitigation potential is highly reliant on the associated emissions of substituted products. Modelling the adoption of a flexitarian lifestyle (75% of meat intake substituted for wheat and pulses) suggests a potential reduction in emissions by ~43% in the livestock sector by 2050, from 12GtonCO2eq/yr to 6.8 GtonCO2eq/yr6.

Strategies for Change
Making significant dietary changes on a large, even global, scale is a highly complex and challenging task which requires a multifaceted approach. Reducing the consumption of meat not only has environmental impacts but social and cultural implications too. Meat is regarded as having a special status in society, it is associated with masculinity and it has a place among many traditional meals7. Eating Better highlight several key drivers of change that need attention if a successful reduction in meat consumption is to be achieved7. Five of these drivers will henceforth be discussed.

Of food items, meat products tend to be the most expensive7. A 2013 YouGov survey found that 35% of UK consumers regard price as the main factor that would drive a willingness to reduce meat consumption and 20% responded that price had already led to a decrease in meat consumption7. One strategy would be to place a carbon tax on food items, making meat and dairy products, with particular emphasis on red meat, more expensive and thus less attractive to the average consumer8. However, this strategy alone would unlikely be sufficient, and may face harsh resistance without the aid of other strategies that target consumer attitudes and knowledge 8,9.

Awareness of Environmental Impact
Research concerning public awareness of the environmental impact of livestock repeatedly reports a severe lack of association by consumers between meat and climate change 8,9,10. Individuals tend to place other food related factors higher in terms of ecological impact11. An Australian study reported 22% of respondents believing eating less meat would have significant environmental impacts compared to 90% believing a reduction of packaging would be beneficial10. This highlights the need for education and information campaigns to promote changes in perceptions of agriculture in relation to climate change. It would be beneficial to include as part of the National Curriculum as young people are more likely to exhibit willingness to change food consumption habits8.

However, it is evident that knowledge alone does not cleanly translate into behavioural changes, as shown through the limited success of health campaigns in the UK and USA12. Even when there is awareness, there is resistance. One large issue is a perception that personal meat consumption will play a minimal role on a global scale11. Research suggests that women are more willing than men to adopt environmentally friendly food habits, including reducing meat consumption8. Therefore, it appears auspicious to target women in environmental awareness campaigns, as they are often influential household gatekeepers8.

The consumption of red meat is linked with health problems such as heart disease and diabetes7. Although an emphasis on the environment is essential in information campaigns, the connection between health and meat consumption is a useful link to make for individuals lacking environmental concern8. People are generally more inclined to make lifestyle changes when they can personally connect and identify with the perceived negative consequences13.

Western culture is one of convenience. The consumption of ready meals and takeaways continues to increase7. Vegetarian and vegan diets are considered inconvenient due to perceived preparation time and difficulty7,14.

One strategy for reducing meat consumption is to increase the range of meatless ready meals available12. By combining meat replacements with pre-existing, culturally accepted meals, people are more likely to try them14. An example of this could be adding plant protein sources to pizza.

One large difficulty in reducing meat consumption concerns the status of meat both as a rich protein source and as a traditional part of the meal7,14. In western culture, there is a trend towards a tripartite structure of the meal: meat, staple and vegetable14.

A barrier to changes in diet is the lack of knowledge regarding suitable protein substitutes and alternative recipes/ meal plans14. Having a wide variety of both processed and non-processed plant proteins available and widely known promotes a change of diet in males, where the cognitive link between protein and masculinity is strong14,15. It is essential for meat substitutes to have good taste, texture and to be environmentally sound15. Promotion of meatless and meat substitute recipes and guides is important for change in diets. Habits, experience and skillsets restrict change as many people do not know how to prepare non-processed meat substitutes such as lentils and beans and are uncertain how to combine them with familiar meals14.

The above drivers of change have been chosen to provide a well-rounded strategy for reducing meat consumption. However, other drivers with scope for promoting dietary  changes are animal welfare concerns, interests in provenance and traceability and food scares7.

Current research surrounding meat consumption and environmental awareness have focussed primarily on European countries, with strong  emphasis on Western  culture. The cultural and social importance of meat varies significantly globally and thus, the strategies for success in reducing meat consumption discussed above must be catered towards individual countries. With countries such as China burgeoning in meat consumption, action must be taken quickly and adapted towards the socio cultural frame of these countries.

The cultural and social significance of meat cannot be underestimated, and changing consumption patterns and behaviours should take a slower transitional approach of promoting a flexitarian lifestyle rather than a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, due to pre-existing connotations of these labels and the restrictions these labels can apply.

By Candi Bradford
(Submitted as part of my undergraduate degree)

[1] Stehfest, E., Bouwman, L., van Vuuren, D., den Elzen, M., Eickhout, B. and Kabat, P. (2009). Climate benefits of changing diet. Climatic Change, 95(1-2), pp.83-102.
[2] Weber, C. and Matthews, H. (2008). Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology, 42(10), pp.3508-3513.
[3] WWF, (2009). How low can we go? An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system end and the scope to reduce them by 2050. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Apr. 2017].
[4] Vetter, S., Sapkota, T., Hillier, J., Stirling, C., Macdiarmid, J., Aleksandrowicz, L., Green, R., Joy, E., Dangour, A. and Smith, P. (2017). Greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural food production to supply Indian diets: Implications for climate change mitigation. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 237, pp.234-241.
[5] Yip, C., Crane, G. and Karnon, J. (2013). Systematic review of reducing population meat consumption to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and obtain health benefits: effectiveness and models assessments. International Journal of Public Health, 58(5), pp.683-693.
[6] Hedenus, F., Wirsenius, S. and Johansson, D. (2014). The importance of reduced meat and dairy consumption for meeting stringent climate change targets. Climatic Change, 124(1-2), pp.79-91.
[7] Eating Better, (2014). Let's talk about meat: Changing dietary behaviour for the 21st century. [online] Available at:'sTalkAboutMeat.pdf [Accessed 31 Mar. 2017].
[8] Tobler, C., Visschers, V. and Siegrist, M. (2011). Eating green. Consumers’ willingness to adopt ecological food consumption behaviors. Appetite, 57(3), pp.674-682.
[9] Vinnari, M. and Tapio, P. (2009). Future images of meat consumption in 2030. Futures, 41(5), pp.269-278.
[10] Lea, E. and Worsley, A. (2008). Australian consumers’ food-related environmental beliefs and behaviours. Appetite, 50(2-3), pp.207-214.
[11] Macdiarmid, J., Douglas, F. and Campbell, J. (2016). Eating like there's no tomorrow: Public awareness of the environmental impact of food and reluctance to eat less meat as part of a sustainable diet. Appetite, 96, pp.487-493.
[12] Carlisle, S. and Hanlon, P. (2014). Connecting food, well-being and environmental sustainability: towards an integrative public health nutrition. Critical Public Health, 24(4), pp.405-417.
[13] de Boer, J., Schösler, H. and Boersema, J. (2013). Climate change and meat eating: An inconvenient couple?. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 33, pp.1-8.
[14] Schösler, H., Boer, J. and Boersema, J. (2011). Can we cut out the meat of the dish? Constructing consumer-oriented pathways towards meat substitution. Appetite, 58(1), pp.39-47.
[15] de Boer, J., Schösler, H. and Aiking, H. (2014). “Meatless days” or “less but better”? Exploring strategies to adapt Western meat consumption to health and sustainability challenges. Appetite, 76, pp.120-128.

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