Meat consumption – especially beef – is one of the biggest obstacles to a safe climate. It’s a problem because of its huge greenhouse gas emissions, and as a driver of deforestation. It’s also a problem because it’s politically difficult. No politician wants to start telling people what they can and can’t eat. In many places meat is a sign of wealth and progress, and it’s something to aspire to (see graph below). So we carry on, even though the planet and our own health would be better off if we ate more moderate amounts of meat.
At the same time, vegan alternatives are now everywhere in Britain. More and more people are discovering that it’s easier than they thought, and the number of people who say they are cutting down on meat continues to grow.
The more we see of this the better. So how do we accelerate it? And what stops people from eating less meat?
That’s the subject of a recent piece of research by Christopher Bryant at the University of Bath. He has examined attitudes to meat eating in Britain, and he identified the top three reasons why people hesitate over vegetarian options.
First, the taste and satisfaction of eating meat. I can understand this. There’s no question that you can get a richness and depth of flavour with meat that is hard to replicate. If you have grown up eating meat, it sets a certain sensory bar, and the meat is noticeably absent. Good vegetarian and vegan food requires a different approach to cooking, not just cutting out the meat or sticking in a plant based substitute – quorn sausages and mash, or tofu instead of chicken. This is a recipe for disappointment, and as the report says, the enjoyment of eating meat “was by far the number one reason for not being vegetarian.”
How do we get past this? For me, it’s been about discovering new ways to cook. But then I love cooking. For those that don’t, the best way around the disappointment might be better meat subsitutes. And the good news on that front is that there are more on the market all the time. I suspect the whole idea of convincingly fake meat will sound very strange in future, but for now companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible are revolutionising the idea. Bryant points out that sales of alternative milks are soaring as better versions catch on.
The second obstacle is convenience. There are two elements to this. One is the difficulty of cooking vegan and vegetarian things at home. The other is the lack of appetising menu items when eating out. In practice, I think the second one is more important. Personally, I find meat-free cooking easier. Of all the elements in a meal, the meat is the one that needs special attention. It’s the one that will give you food poisoning if you get it wrong. It has to be kept separate when raw, and needs it’s own chopping board and knife. Vegetables are far more forgiving, and all round less icky in my opinion. Again, perhaps this is to do with how we cook, or the fact that we don’t a lot of the time.
However, convenience becomes a real issue in families where one person is vegetarian and the others aren’t. As soon as you end up having to prepare multiple dishes, it’s a problem. Or when you have people over and are planning what to cook, and you have to remember to do a vegan option. Perhaps it is this experience of vegetarianism as an unwelcome hassle that makes people see it as an inconvenience. Of course, as it becomes more mainstream, it gets easier just to do meat free dishes by default. I usually cook vegan food when we have people round. We don’t make a thing of it and often nobody notices.
There is definitely a point on choice when eating out. It is a bit dispiriting when everyone else is browsing the whole menu at a restaurant, and you’re scanning for the three options that have the V by them. It makes people feel like second class citizens, and and in some cases even an afterthought. This is changing too.
The third reason for hesitation is cost, and this one I find strange. There’s no question in my mind that a vegetarian diet is cheaper. At a normal British meal table, the meat is almost always going to be the most expensive thing on the plate. Cutting out meat would save people money. So where does this misconception come from?
It may be that people have been put off by the high price of specialist alternatives. This might be particularly true for vegan products. There are some niche foods that are harder to come by, and in the past some vegan staples have been more expensive. Vegetarian food is cheap, and the cost of plant based processed foods is falling rapidly as more people buy them as part of a ‘flexetarian’ diet.
Reading through Bryant’s research, it would appear that the three main objections to reducing meat consumption will be overcome by experience, and by economies of scale. That’s positive news. Whether they will be overcome in time to make a difference to emissions, that’s another question. But we can certainly play our part by talking more about what we eat, making plant-based choices normal, and asking for more choice from companies we buy from.
Meat consumption tracks income. The richer people become, the more meat they eat, above and beyond what would be considered healthy: