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Eating less meat for planetary and population health

last modified Mar 17, 2016 12:13 PM
Should we eat less meat? Should the government encourage us to eat less meat? Is there such a thing as a sustainable and ethical diet?

These were the questions posed to our ‘Less Meat’ panel this week at the Cambridge Science Festival. Judging by the packed auditorium, Cambridge consumers are interested in this topic.

Our chair, food historian Bee Wilson put the debate in context by reminding the audience about the role that food plays in our cultures and societies and how the way we view food as part of our daily lives, our family rituals, and as part of long-term health and prosperity is shaped by history and circumstance – be that farming and living off the land, personal experience of war and malnutrition, or cultural conventions relating to ideas of ‘bounty’, ‘plenty’ and hospitality. In Western societies these developments have led to our sometimes problematic relationship with food – about diet, waste and over-consumption.

Our panellists drew on research and policy experience relating to the question of whether we should eat less meat, and what role – if any – government should play in our choices.

Conservation scientist Professor Andrew Balmford addressed the question, why eat less meat for climate change? We heard that eating less meat will have more impact on the environment than changing other aspects of our diet, such as going organic, or going local. At the same time, we need to think about the demand for future farmland, if we did all become vegetarian.

Climate change and environment researcher Dr Bojana Bajzelj described the global shift towards Western diets and its impact on climate change. Western societies have moved towards a damaging pattern of overconsumption, which also has problematic outcomes such as linked obesity and malnutrition amongst populations.

So, if the message to eat less red meat and particularly processed and ruminant (beef and lamb) meat seems simple, what more do we need to know? Researchers are able to break down the questions and compare strategies – for example, does changing your diet have more impact than other lifestyle choices such as airline travel in reducing environmental impact? (The answer is yes, at the margin, because whilst everyone eats, only a certain percentage of people travel by air.)

Behavioural psychologist Professor Theresa Marteau placed the research question squarely in policy terms – it is not just about whether an individual will choose to eat less meat but also about whether we should support government policies aimed at trying to reduce meat consumption. Behavioural research can help us understand how to go about reducing consumption of meat alongside other goods that may be harmful to us in some way, such as sugar and alcohol.

Research tells us that while providing more information doesn’t really change behaviour, changing food environments - such as availability, price and marketing – does affects behaviour. Any strategy requires multiple interventions in order to change behaviour, and you need to target the main actors; namely - government, industry, the public.

Leaving meat consumption to individual choice is unlikely to succeed, but supporting the government to change environments to encourage us to reduce meat consumption, is more likely to be effective – if these measures are supported by the public.

Former MP for Cambridge, Dr Julian Huppert, felt it was important to find out why people plan to reduce their meat consumption. He also talked about the different strategies that might be available to government in order to lower meat consumption but he also highlighted some new developments on the horizon – such as the US company “Modern Meadow” that is growing meat artificially, which is supported by PETA and the “climate carnivore”, the diet that cuts out lamb, beef and diary for a smaller carbon footprint.

Questions and comments from the audience were wide-ranging - from whether you can have a sustainable and ethical diet - to how we frame ‘pleasure’ in relation to food, and how we view animals in different societies and cultures – ‘as pests, pets or food’ and what might the economic impact of changing diets?

Whilst there was no ‘one best way’ to solve the complexity of diet, consumption and the environment, Michael Pollan’s mantra of ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants’ found favour amongst the audience and panel.

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