Should people eat less meat?
The movement away from excessive meat-eating is too slow, we must legislate.
By Huw Morgan
There are an overwhelming number of reasons not to eat meat, so much so that to ignore them is cognitive dissonance at its most formidable. When I ask anyone I know if they think they should eat less meat they invariably say yes, so why aren’t we, en masse, eating less meat?
I would suggest that for every person there is at least one reason which could stick in their mind and encourage a reduction in their consumption: the mass slaughter (70 million poultry birds per month) of sentient creatures, 20 servings of vegetables having less greenhouse gas emissions than one serving of beef, the many studies linking (particularly red) meat with ill health, or the extra expense of eating meat twice a day. Take your pick.
Even if we hit every single other carbon target to keep warming under 1.5C, it will not happen unless we reduce emissions from the agricultural industry. ie. we must eat less meat, or else we’ll all die, hyperbole intentional.
As a non-meat eater I understand the adjustments that one has to make. Vegetarianism, whilst on the rise, is still seen as different, it still elicits the question of “oh, how come?” rather than just being a thing which people do. Like many problems which need mass behavioural shift, it is time to nudge the consumer, to use a marketing phrase. Eating meals without meat needs to be the easier choice.
Most high street restaurants have 2 or 3 veggie options at best (often generic), supermarkets have enormous meat isles, gleaming under their fluorescent lights like living diamonds, cooking programs rarely feature meat-free meals, schools go the same way as restaurants. As a human species we are embarrassingly narrow-minded.
There are over 50,000 species of edible plants in the world, yet 3 (wheat, maize, rice) make up 60% of what we fuel ourselves with. It is a symptom of why people associate vegetarianism (and veganism, it’s more radical cousin) with the giving up of choice, the loss of decision, but I would argue so strongly that a diet without meat is infinitely more exciting. The oft-maligned extra expense of “eating healthily” is a myth. Chickpeas, barley, lentils, sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, spinach, rice, not to mention other myriad of pulses and grains are all inexpensive. The list of cheap and versatile ingredients which you are forced to take in when removing meat from your cooking reads like an Oscar nominee list of amazing, healthy foods.
So what is to be done? Projects like taking meat off the menu at schools once a week, Meat-free Mondays doing something similar involving restaurants lead the way. Consumers are a fickle bunch, and will adapt. The 5p bag tax caused precisely zero outrage and the smoking ban did not end the world as we knew it.
Legislation and national schemes work, and people quickly find a new normal. When people cry foul at the “taking away of choice” it is totally disingenuous. The free market has no way of appropriately pricing the meat it sells, I may cry foul that your meat consumption is causing emissions which are damaging my lungs. I won’t, because the time for shaming, I believe, has gone. If the externalities of meat-eating were internalised, it would be much more expensive and people would probably buy less of it.
The agricultural industry is a fierce beast and we must make a new society away from what has been only a recent tradition of meat twice a day. Just think, for a moment, quite how ridiculous it is that we feed our children cow’s milk. This, a substance designed to fatten a small calf in a full adult in as fast a time as possible!! Let alone the fact that this has been advocated in government policy. There is no history, no story for British people around food that doesn’t involve meat, think of fish and chips, roast dinners, pie and mash.
The shift we need is twofold: an economic/legislative and a cultural. Only then can not eating meat (or eating much, much less) cease to be odd, and take its necessary place as normal. As Michael Pollan says; eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
Photograph by TFCP Photography