Reducing the amount of meat produced for food is fast becoming a holy grail for sustainable food activists and climate scientists alike, embodying high hopes for combatting climate change. Yet unlike vegetarianism, we know very little about why people might decide to reduce the amount of meat in their diet, or the challenges encountered in doing so. Is ‘meat reduction’ simply a case of ‘vegetarianism-light’, destined to remain resistant to widespread adoption? Or, could meat eating be a long awaited example of widespread the ‘lifestyle changes’ required to render western societies more sustainable?
After years of mainstream environmental NGOs avoiding the issue of meat eating – fearing a backlash from meddling too deeply in their supporters ways of life – various quasi and non- governmental organisations are now advocating reduced meat diets (including the now defunct Sustainable Development Commission, the Carbon Trust and Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs). Responsible consumers are urged to avoid, replace, or eat ‘less but better’ meat. Initiatives such as meatless days, meatless weeks, meatless products, are gaining endorsement from celebrities, businesses, and universities across the UK. Supermarket sales of ‘meat alternatives’ are rising year on year. Momentum around the issue of curbing meat consumption for environmental reasons is building. But what does this mean for eating patterns? Reflecting on the phenomenon of meat reduction, this article suggests a hopeful picture: meat avoidance is already underway in the UK, and because the experience of reducing meat is less about ethics and more about practicality (compared to vegetarianism) it has the potential to deliver sustainability benefits without moral hectoring. Less hopeful perhaps is that persuading people to eat less meat is unlikely to result from current efforts to communicate the consequences for climate change of rearing beef. Why then, do people who are not vegetarian avoid eating meat?
As much sociological work on behavioural change highlights – neither the exertion of moral pressure, nor the provision of information, are likely to elicit changes in what we consume. In this context my work on meat and sustainability explores why people try to reduce the amount of meat they eat, and the challenges they encounter. This is done by combining insights from interviewing meat consumers about meat eating and meat reduction with analysis of commercial activities and political discourses around meat and sustainability. This research uncovers a range of influences on meat reduction, influences that extend far beyond people’s orientation toward animal welfare or environmental issues. The explanations can be grouped into four categories, capturing not only people’s motivations, but also the experience of enacting meat reduction and the challenges faced in translating intentions into actions. Leaving aside religious imperatives, I identify four key types of explanation, relating to: health; hygiene; history and home life. These categories work to highlight the ways in which people’s experience of meat reduction is embedded in societal structures which extend beyond their individual identity or ethical stance. Rather, ideas about the relationship between eating and the body (health); concerns about the conditions of meat provision (hygiene); the importance of past experiences in shaping tastes for food (history); and crucially for understanding challenges for enacting meat reduction, the personal relationships and routine activities which shape the provision of meals (home life).
‘Being healthy’ routinely forms part of the meat-reducers’ narrative. Yet there are a variety of understandings of what eating meat means for bodily health, and how this is mobilised differently for different groups (particularly adults vs children, men vs women). Meanings of healthiness, to be achieved through meat reduction, include minimising risk of illness, maintaining adequate nutrition, and enhancing bodily appearance. Non-communicable diseases (cancer, heart disease), frequently feature in people’s accounts, but usually only as a secondary benefit rather than a primary motivation. Health also underpins narratives of why abstinence from meat is not considered a good idea. First, because meat offers an important source of nutrition and secondly, for men in particular, because of a deep link between meat and ideas about vitality and the strength of the body. This link, therefore, works in two ways – both in explanations for why meat is avoided, often to make way for other ‘healthy’ foods, and why meat is not omitted entirely.
People’s personal histories loomed large in descriptions of eating meat. Continuity in diet and maintaining family traditions are important, as are efforts to leave behind old ways of eating. Take the niece of a butcher who won’t eat steak: ‘We always used to have it’ she explains – ‘I did like it, but I just don’t want it anymore’. In contrast, another interviewee, a female professional who doesn’t enjoy ‘large hunks of meat’, explains that it is too far removed from her childhood diet. Growing up in a large family with a low income, meat provided flavour, but meals were bulked up with potatoes and root vegetables. Her current preferences reflect this history. Nevertheless, widowed early and now living alone, she still cooks a Sunday roast for herself. It’s more about the occasion she explains, and it wouldn’t feel like Sunday without it. Narratives of meat reduction show evidence of both continuity and tradition, and reactions to them.
Celebration, socialising, and feeding family and friends (as well as being fed) present a double-edged sword for meat reduction. The perceived expectations of others for meat-based meals that aim to please and satisfy, often work to sustain levels of meat provision within the home. Nevertheless, close personal relationships may also stimulate meat reduction, as new dishes are encountered, enjoyed and reproduced. The meat reducing motivations of others, particularly partners, are adopted in the spirit of being supportive, by household members. The conditions of home-life (partners, children, socialising) may have contradictory influences on endeavours to reduce meat in the diet.
Concerns about hygiene are a key influence on where people purchase meat. An often-mentioned reason for avoiding meat eating out of the home was negative impressions about the hygiene of the premises or food preparation practices. More insipid concerns and general anxiety around hygiene also emerge from imagining the journey of meat through production and processing, as it becomes food. Fears about cleanliness, sterility and purity pervaded explanations of why meat, or certain types of meat, are avoided. Surprisingly, contamination with horses (or other animals), do not feature in accounts. Rather, smaller substances posed bigger threats – bacteria, hormones, antibiotics, genes and their modification, are the sources of contamination that mattered. Meat reducers are not responding to a specific ‘crisis’ in meat production (such as horsemeat, E. coli or BSE), but a chronic and pervasive unease about invisible practices of the food industry.
Reduction in meat eating is shaped by health concerns, responses to personal food histories, and unease with the conditions of provision that appear more acute than for other foods. These orientations are fertile for meat reduction to gain traction as a response to the environmental impact of food production. As yet however, the main policy approach to meat production in the UK, Europe and the US, has been investment (both public and corporate) in technological innovation and engineering to improve the efficiency of farming systems. While this is good news for climate change, it is not good news for meat, meat eating or for most people concerned with promoting a sustainable food system who recognise that the on-going “meatification” of agriculture cannot continue. Although lowering production emissions while maintaining output serves to deflect some criticism and sustain industry profitability, the increasingly efficient systems for rearing animals clash with most prominent ideas of what ‘sustainable’ food looks like. In a context in which, ever more efficient production is undesirable calls for reducing meat consumption are gaining prominence in UK and across the world. China – whose per capita meat consumption lags way behind western levels, but whose trajectory strikes fear in to the hearts of climate scientists – has recently announced revised dietary guidance designed to curb meat consumption (see Mark Harvey, this issue). The UK government, on the other hand, trails behind China’s progressive environmental strategy, leaving the issue of the environmental impact of meat, and of food generally, to the (highly subsidised) industry, faith in R&D and the ‘market’.
Efforts to promote abstinence from meat for environmental reasons have existed for decades, notably since the vegetarian and vegan movements of the 1960s. But widespread adoption of the narrative around “everybody eat a bit less” is relatively new. Unlike vegetarianism, meat reduction is less visible, more flexible, and more multifaceted in its motivations. As such it has a greater chance of being adopted by a wider range of people and can be maintained across a variety of social contexts without fear of failure or alienation. So, it is precisely because meat reduction is not a response to climate change that it might just work.
Josephine Mylan is a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. She researches in the area of sustainable consumption and production, with a particular interest in how large firms and powerful industries shape everyday life. Empirically her work focusses on mundane products and practices, and includes studies of lighting, laundry, milk, bread, and orange juice. This article draws from the research project “Innovation for Sustainable Meat”, funded by the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester, which includes in-depth interviews with meat-reducing consumers.
Photo credit: dottorpeni – dedicated to pier 2, CC BY 2.0,