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Sustainable Consumption Institute

Blog: From meat-free days to meat-free diets?

15 June 2017

Last Monday was World Meat Free Day. In the first blog of the SCI’s new website, Jo Mylan and Nicklas Neuman argue ‘Meat Free’ days are only one piece of broader puzzle of how to limit the effects of industrial meat production.

World Meat Free Day can be conceptualised as an intervention aimed at raising awareness of ‘meat-reduction’ as a positive dietary choice. It shares characteristics with other awareness raising days such as Earth Day, the World Health Day and the International Women’s Day. The ambition, official website is not to coerce people into entirely abstaining from eating meat, but rather to encourage consumers ‘just for one day, to show how easy it can be, so that you eat less meat throughout the year, and better quality meat when you do eat it.’  Meat free days are one sign that momentum is building around addressing the environmental problem of meat. 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 organisations are now advocating reduced meat diets, including Greenpeace, WWF, and the Carbon Trust.

Recognitions of the relationship between diet and sustainability have also started to gain prominence in public dietary guidelines. Guidelines which, until now, have focused on the nutritional aspects of food are beginning to incorporate environmental concerns. For example, the Nordic Council of Ministers incorporated ‘environmental issues’ into their latest update of the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations, which in Sweden led to the more general advice to ‘eat greener’ – a play on words linking fruit and vegetables to environmentally friendly consumption. Parallel to this, proponents of dietary patterns such as the ‘New Nordic Diet’ or the ‘Mediterranean diet’ make claims of benefits not only for peoples’ physical health, but also for environmental sustainability. Despite the geographical origins, these diets are more similar than different, focusing on eating patterns in which most of our caloric intake comes from plants, with red meat ‘in moderation’, and with a supposedly holistic approach that incorporates protection of biodiversity and cultural heritage. The UK is still lagging behind, however. The latest update of the Eatwell Guide, from 2016, does acknowledge sustainability, but no more than advising consumers to select ‘sustainably sourced fish’. Recommendations about red meat, on the other hand, focus on health, and these dietary shifts pertain to the reduction of processed meats and saturated fat.

Such dietary change initiatives are accompanied by pleas for ‘responsible’ consumers to avoid, replace, or eat ‘less but better’ meat. The logic is that sufficient amounts of adequately persuasive information about the problems of meat eating will shift individual intentions in desirable directions. This has been the standard way of thinking about behavioural change for decades.

Research on meat-reducing consumers conducted at the SCI has uncovered a range of influences shaping consumers orientation to, and experience of, reducing meat eating beyond awareness of the problems associated with meat. Drivers and influences include personal relationships and individuals’ relationship with own bodies. ‘Being healthy’ routinely forms part of meat-reducers’ narratives. However, health also underpins narratives of why abstinence from meat is not considered a good idea. Firstly because meat offers an important source of nutrition, and secondly, because of a deep link between meat and ideas about vitality and the strength of the body. This link, therefore, works 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.

Socialising, providing food and being fed by family and friends present a double edged sword for meat reduction. The social conventions of the group with whom one usually eats will play a role in the food that is eaten – increased knowledge and awareness for the individual will have little effect if this does not fit into established everyday routines. Aiming to please and satisfy the perceived expectations of others for meat-based meals 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 are adopted in support by household members, particularly partners. So home-life may have contradictory influences on endeavours to reduce meat in the diet.

Concerns about hygiene are a key influence on where people purchase meat. Negative impressions about the hygiene of the premises or food preparation practices were often mentioned as reasons for avoiding meat eating out of the home. More insipid concerns and general anxieties 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, were avoided. Small substances were perceived as posing big threats – bacteria, hormones, antibiotics, genes and their modification, were the sources of contamination that mattered. Meat-reducers are not responding to a specific ‘crisis’ in meat production (such as ‘the horsemeat scandal’, E. coli or BSE), but a chronic and pervasive unease about invisible practices of the food industry.

In light of these varied motivations we would argue that information campaigns as a means of intervention into peoples’ diets are unlikely to stimulate change, as evidenced by the rise in obesity, diet-related metabolic diseases and the perseverance of unsustainable eating patterns. We suggest four reasons why information campaigns are unlikely to have much effect when it comes to meat:

  • ‘Proper’ food and ‘normal’ eating - Why do populations of the rich parts of the world eat so much meat? Well, the causes are many and the individual incentives to keep doing so are strong. Indeed, a more reasonable question might actually be ‘why wouldn’t we?’ After all, most people enjoy the flavour of meat in different forms, meat is filling and nutritious, many popular meat dishes demand no advanced cooking skills while being cheap and accessible. For most people, a ‘normal’ meal is self-evidently about eating meat. Thus, eating meat is rarely a particularly deliberate choice, whereas not eating meat usually is, and shared ideas about what constitutes a ‘proper meal’ places meat at the centre. ‘Normal’ people eat meat. Moreover, meat free alternatives are likely to be less accessible and ‘special diets’ associated with people with certain strong values and opinions.
  • Wealth and progress - Meat has historically been associated with wealth, and thus with economic progress as populations grow richer. This association with a better life turned meat into something highly desirable. We see this today in developing countries in which meat consumption steadily increases as people become richer. One could therefore argue that meat consumption on a population level is a positive marker of people rising up from poverty. But this does not change the fact that the planet and animals will suffer as a consequence. 
  • Sociality, celebration and symbolism - In addition to being the centre of a ‘proper meal’, meat is also at the centre of festive meal occasions. Whether a simple family barbecue or a Nobel prize dinner, the meal is likely to centre on different forms of animal flesh. Meat tends to symbolize something highly valued. In fact, anthropologists have shown that red meat specifically has been the most highly ranked food and simultaneously the most taboo-laden food in cultures across time and place (for example, religious taboos concerning pigs or cows). The taboos mostly tend to target women rather than men, however, and this brings us to our last point.
  • Meat eating and gender - Red meat has a historically strong association to masculinity. Vegetarian eating is culturally associated with certain political values and opinions, but it is also associated with women and femininity. Men tend to eat more meat than women and fast foods are often advertised with sexualized images of women. Some feminists have even argued that human dominance over animals and men’s subordination of women are two sides of the same coin. Whether or not one accepts this argument, it is still plausible that meat-reduced diets would be less likely among men than among women.

In sum, the practical, material and cultural embedding of meat in our diets and wider society means that specific days highlighting meat-free eating are unlikely to deliver mass changes in what we consume.

We argue that interventions aiming to accomplish general reductions in the consumption of meat must target not only peoples’ knowledge, but also the cultural understandings of what ‘proper food’ is, the meanings attached to certain diets, the accessibility and skills required for vegetarian food to become a ‘normal’ option and so forth. Social change in this area will have occurred when vegetarian options, and generally meat-reduced diets, are no longer ‘deviant’, limited to people who have taken a political stance. Consequently, while World Meat Free Day is a welcome initiative, likely to contributing to establishing ‘meat reduction’ as a positive dietary choice it is only one piece of broader puzzle required limit the disadvantageous effects of industrial meat production.

Parts of this blog previously appeared in an article by Jo Mylan in Discover Society Issue 36, September 2016, ‘Why Meat Reduction isn’t a Response to Climate Change’.

People

  • Josephine Mylan is a Research Fellow at the Sustainable Consumption Institute and Manchester Institute of Innovation Research. The research referred to in this blog is part of her Innovation for sustainable meat project.
  • Nicklas Neuman is currently a visiting postdoctoral researcher at the Sustainable Consumption Institute. He is based at the Department of Food, Nutrition and Dietetics, Uppsala University, Sweden, and is funded by the Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF). He is currently doing research on vegetarianism and on the experienced barriers and facilitators for reduced meat eating.

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