Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Health
15 August 2016

The New Vegetarianism: why we need a different approach to reducing meat consumption

It’s time to replace the government's lacklustre stance on reducing meat-eating, and the "vegan-or-bust" message of some activists, with a new campaign that is more realistic about our diets.

By Will Carter

Unless you are a tobacco company, good news came last Tuesday. Public Health England published data revealing that the number of people who smoke in the UK is at its lowest since records began. The figure now stands at only 16.9 per cent, a decrease from the 17.8 per cent figure from 2014. In 1974, a full 45 per cent of people in Britain smoked. Such a decline can be attributed to the fact that the detrimental side-effects of smoking are now much more widely known and understood.

However, such a dramatic decrease is also a testament to the success of aggressive anti-smoking public health campaigns and changes in legislation. Campaigns such as Smoking Kills, and its successor launched in 2015, Smoking Still Kills, have worked in concert with legislative changes like the smoking ban, compulsory warnings on tobacco product packaging and a complete ban on tobacco advertising.

The success of anti-smoking campaigners points to the ability of efficient health campaigning and legislative change to generate real shifts in people’s most entrenched habits. This sets an optimistic precedent if one considers another area where a deeply ingrained public habit throws up urgent and serious personal, economic and environmental consequences: excessive meat consumption.

Although meat-eating in the UK, like smoking, has fallen, Britain still remains one of the more carnivorous countries globally. In 2013, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, British people ate an annual 83.4kg of meat, nearly double the global average of 41.90kg in that year. We are not the worst offenders, especially compared to the US, a country which in 2014 had an average annual meat consumption of 120.2kg. However, the prolific rate of consumption of these meat-eating heavyweights adds greater urgency to the call for large-scale  meat reduction in meat consumption and the adoption of a more vegetarian diet.

Cutting back

There is a plethora of arguments in favour of reducing one’s meat consumption. The case for doing so on health grounds is pressing. Vegetarians are less likely to suffer from many chronic conditions, such as coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity. And the consumption of meat is linked to a higher incidence of cancer.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Environmental motivations for meat reduction are even more urgent and solidly established. As Luke Massey from Greenpeace tells me:

“75 per cent of land is used for grazing animals or growing crops to feed animals. This does immense damage to ecosystems like the Amazon and has huge climate impacts. It’s why we run campaigns in the Amazon on both soya and cattle. We will not solve the climate change problem or the loss of biodiversity without tackling the meat industry.”

In total, animal agriculture (as explored in the Netflix documentary Cowspiracy) is responsible for up to 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, and some sources report a much higher figure. It is vital then that organisations and governments do all they can to push a meat-reduction or vegetarian message. Cowspiracy exposed the institutional resistance in the US to an explicitly vegetarian campaign message amongst government and environmental organisations.

In terms of governments, eating is such an intensely personal issue that politicians are loath to interfere beyond the promotion of generic healthy eating. MPs like vegan shadow agriculture secretary Kerry McCarthy should continue to push for a culture change away from excessive meat consumption.

But there is hope. A 2015 WHO study, which strongly linked the consumption of processed red meat to cancer, especially bowel cancer, has had a marked effect on meat consumption levels in the UK. However, the conclusion here seems to be that a specific health concern associated with a specific meat provokes changes to spending and eating habits. What is not pursued, at least not with enough rigour or explicitness, is the idea that we are eating meat excessively, or even that idea that perhaps we should not be eating meat at all.

Evidence for this unwillingness to fundamentally change can be found in the sky-rocketing of white meat sales, especially chicken, since the publication of the 2015 WHO study. Although overall meat consumption has fallen by 13 per cent since 2007, we have never been buying as much chicken. The average UK consumer buys 190g of it a week, demonstrating that while we are more aware of the detrimental health, and possibly environmental, drawbacks of red meat (uncooked bacon and ham sales have steadily decreased since the publication of the WHO study last year, which found that eating 50g of processed red meat a day increased the risk of colorectal cancer by up to 18 per cent), the concept of meat-eating at our current rate, or meat-eating itself, has gone unchallenged.

Filling the policy vaccum

Rather than change being incited by fear of cancer (reasonable of course though such a fear is), excessive meat-eating needs to be combated by a realistic, positive campaign that promotes the sustainability and health benefits of a more plant-based diet. What can be done then to bring this into the mainstream, and who could do it?

The government is currently silent over meat-reduction, an environmentally untenable position. Caitlin Owers, a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson, comments that while, “Defra follows Department of Health guidelines on healthy diets, it has no policies strictly around promoting the reduction of meat consumption”.

When asked what it does to promote sustainable animal agriculture, Owers replies that the Department invests in, “new agricultural technologies and apprenticeships”, but has no policies encouraging meat reduction. While the NHS Choices website gives guidance about how to manage a vegetarian diet, it does not encourage one. This lacklustre government position is a failing which needs to be urgently addressed by organisations and individuals.   

The number of voices, and the volume of those voices, calling for a reduction in our average meat consumption is rising and these people are best-placed to shape the most efficient campaign possible.

One such growing campaign is Eating Better, founded in 2013 by the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth. Friends of the Earth food campaigner Kierra Box explained to me that, in order to be successful, a meat reduction campaign must highlight the benefits of meat reduction over the negatives of excessive meat consumption:

“While research has shown that those who have access to more information about the negative impacts of high meat consumption on animal welfare and the environment report greater willingness to change what they eat, fear or guilt based campaigning around the impacts of high meat consumption on the climate, health and natural ecosystems is ineffective at changing attitudes. The ideal messaging for a meat reduction campaign would focus on the benefits of a plant-based diet in terms of personal health and longevity, great tasting low and no-meat options, and the financial savings of opting for less meat in our shopping baskets. Overall positive framing, rather than shock tactics.”

This positive framing is essential and must be coupled with realism in any potential meat-reduction campaign. A message that incites long-term change will not be “vegan-or-bust”. Instead, gradual, but significant, meat reduction is a message with greater mileage for most of the population. As Box writes: “Presenting vegetarianism as the only route to a healthier and more sustainable diet would be likely to alienate people.”

Friends of the Earth therefore rejects the idea of tobacco-style warnings on meat packaging (while images of battery farming or bowel cancer on packets of bacon would certainly be memorable, the reaction against such a proposal would be so visceral that it would be likely to ultimately hurt a vegetarian cause).

Eating Better advocates simplicity:

“We could envisage a future where foods indicate their climate change impact alongside their nutritional information. But we’ve got a way to go to raise awareness that our food choices even have an impact on the climate before this kind of information would be relevant to the majority of people. Rather than seek to raise awareness among the whole population, we know from other public health campaigns that it is simpler and more effective to change the default, ie. the offer on menus and choices in supermarkets.”

Sue Dibb, the co-ordinator at the Eating Better Alliance (which comprises 50 civil society organisations) notes that campaigning must push for legislative change, and has specific policy suggestions:

“The most effective public health campaigns back up their messages with policies that make it easy for people to do the right thing. So for meat reduction that would mean a whole suite of policies that incentivised plant-based food production & consumption, took away subsidies from livestock (and livestock) feed production. It would also mean embedding less meat/more plants within public health promotion & within public sector food procurement policies. Public awareness campaigns are an important part of this picture but are not sufficient on their own. What we’re looking to create is long term culture change. We don’t think you can do this by scaring people, telling them that they are wrong or that they must give meat up completely.”

Dibb emphasises that Eating Better “does not advocate a fully vegetarian or vegan diet” and is not “anti-meat or anti-farmer”, but is, “critical of the relentless pressure to produce ‘cheap’ meat which comes at a high cost to the environment, our health & for animal welfare”.

This sustainable, achievable message will be important for a large-scale meat reduction campaign, especially so it does not fall victim to anti-expert sentiment whipped up following the Brexit referendum. Dibb adds that any attempt to influence diet must avoid “preaching”. Instead, campaigners need to entice the public, rather than shame them, “by making reduced-meat choices desirable, delicious and attractive – rather than worthy!”

Massey from Greenpeace echoes this need for nuance, and an awareness of audience when encouraging meat-reduction: “Advocating for, and raising awareness of, the environmental benefits of meat-reduction is clearer and more effective here [the UK] than, for example, in sub-Saharan Africa. In terms of pitch, Greenpeace always tries to empower people through information and advocacy, rather than patronise them about what are ultimately personal choices.”

Anti-smoking campaigns rightly reinforced the personal financial benefits of quitting. Meat-reduction campaigners should do the same. They must also emphasise the fact that abstaining from buying cheap, poor quality meat will allow greater innovation in the meat and vegetarian alternative markets, as sales of more environmentally friendly meat and meat alternatives go up.

Anti-meat campaigners may face resistance from groups such as the National Farmers’ Union. In an interview with the Guardian, Dr Diane Mitchell, chief environment adviser at the National Farmers’ Union, was not enthusiastic about the suggestion that carbon emissions could be cut by a reduction in animal agriculture:

“Eating less meat is a simplistic solution to what is a highly complex situation. Agricultural production in the UK is currently responsible for around 10 per cent of total UK greenhouse emissions. The British livestock sector is already doing much to tackle its footprint. It musn’t be forgotten that meat and dairy products are an important component of a healthy, balanced diet.”

The environmental, ethical and health arguments will have to be continually restated to combat counter-arguments like these, which arguably do not engage with any of the issues surrounding meat reduction.

These campaigns must be taken further by firmly planting the idea that it is excessive meat-eating, or even our status as omnivores itself, that needs to be examined, not just the welfare or sustainability of specific meat sources. Free-range cattle-rearing is ethically superior to battery farming but it is still environmentally unsustainable (Cowspiracy has a memorable interview with some free-range cattle ranchers on this topic, in which, while well-meaning and certainly kinder than the documentary’s nefarious battery-farmers, they are left unable to defend the environmental inefficiency of their model).

Mass appeal

Another key determinant of the success of meat reduction efforts will be its ability to tap into social media and become a mass movement. The success up to now of Meat Free Mondays, a campaign started by the McCartney family, should motivate campaigners to be ambitious. Successful initiatives like Dry January and Movember suggest the public is willing to give things a go for a longer period of time.

As long as a campaign like Meat Free May makes it unequivocally clear that participants would go vegetarian for a month, in addition to Mondays year round, then the venture would be monumentally successful. A campaign should be vibrant and fun, and include vocal vegetarian and vegan chefs and celebrities like Ellie Goulding and Liam Hemsworth. And we should look at successful past campaigns like Fish Fight, which incorporated the message that we should be eating less fish, as well as more sustainably-sourced fish.

The recent fundraising achievements of the Ice Bucket Challenge, which facilitated a breakthrough in the treatment of ALS, indicate that tying a challenge to a certain specific goal help focus efforts and increase participation. A campaign could choose any number of animal or environmental causes to benefit from a sponsored Meat Free May. Participants could then chart the financial success of the initiative as well as finding out how good their month long abstention was for their body and planet.

Better awareness about climate and health can develop into an appetite to act. According to an Ipsos MORI poll carried out earlier this year, the number of vegans in Britain increased by 360 per cent in the last ten years, to reach around 542,000 people. Such a dramatic increase should embolden meat reduction campaigners, and eventually lead to a little less meat on the menu.