Studies show that ditching meat is one of the highest-impact actions a person can take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, a 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that transitioning to a plant-based diet could reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions 29-70% by 2050, depending on the specifics of the diet adopted (e.g., vegetarian vs. vegan).
But how can policymakers convince meat-eaters to step away from the T-bone?
A new study forthcoming in Appetite analyzes the drivers of meat consumption worldwide to help answer that question.
Researchers find that the two main factors linked to meat consumption were income per capita and urbanization. In other words, as income per capita increases, so too does meat consumption. And countries that are more urbanized also have higher per capita meat consumption.
Meat consumption also increases in Western countries, countries where a greater proportion of women participate in the workforce and countries with natural conditions that are favorable for meat production, such as land availability and temperate climate.
“It is really important to understand the drivers behind meat consumption in order to foresee future developments, but also to see what can be done to shift the direction toward [a] more plant-based [diet], which is more sustainable,” explains lead author Anna Milford, a research scientist at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research.
Milford and her colleagues analyzed a 2011 dataset of information about meat consumption and other variables — such as meat prices, income per capita and rates of urbanization. The dataset spans the globe, and includes the United States.
Milford suggests that urbanization and female labor force participation — the percentage of the female population over the age of 15 participating in the labor force — might be associated with increased meat consumption because meat is a “convenient food” insofar as it is readily available as a mainstay of fast-food menus, for example.
On the other hand, cost also affects consumption, the authors find. As the price of meat in a given country increases, per capita meat consumption there decreases.
Meat consumption also falls in countries with a higher proportion of Muslims. For context, Milford and her colleagues find that worldwide, Muslims account for 20% of the population. Countries with a higher proportion of Muslims might consume less meat because of restrictions against eating pork and other meat that has not been slaughtered in accordance with Islamic dietary laws.
Additionally, meat consumption falls in countries where natural conditions are unfavorable for meat production and countries that participate in global economic markets.
The latter factor “has to do with how a country is specializing,” Milford explains. “If it’s integrating economically by specializing in a product that can be exported, we find that it’s possible that they will specialize in a plant-based — not a meat-based — product because plants are easier to export.”
She continues, “Those who specialize in plant production also consume more plants, because that’s what often happens in a country — they will eat more of what they produce themselves for exports.”
Milford says the analysis points toward policy interventions that might help shift cultural preferences.
“With Western culture being one of the factors influencing meat consumption, that means that it is not necessarily a sort of biological relationship where as long as you can afford it, you will always buy more meat,” Milford explains. “It’s something that also is influenced by social factors and culture. And for that reason, there is room, I think, for influencing cultures in the other direction toward more plant-based [diets].” She continues, “I think we already see a trend where people are moving towards plant-based. But you don’t see a lot of government-supported initiatives towards that.”
Potential mechanisms to support cultural changes toward plant-based diets, Milford suggests, include:
- Offering vegetarian cooking classes.
- Incorporating lessons on sustainability and the environmental impacts of diet into school curricula.
- Encouraging cafeterias to serve plant-based foods.
Milford adds that there’s also room for intervention on the supply side. For instance:
- Incentivizing the production of plant-based alternatives rather than meat.
She notes that journalists might consider localizing this issue by investigating the influence of meat producers in the country where they’re reporting. Because one of the drivers of meat consumption in a country is whether or not the country produces it — even when controlling for price — Milford suggests it’s worth looking into the mechanisms through which meat producers influence consumption, whether by lobbying, cultural influence or other factors.