food

Making less meat normal

Raising animals for meat is a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a massive obstacle to a sustainable future, and it’s not helped by the fact that a lot of people don’t seem to know about it. Governments don’t want to address it either and leave it out of climate action plans. That’s understandable – nobody wants to be told what they can and can’t eat.

Another problem is that campaigns around meat are often run by groups that take a pretty hard line on it. They campaign for vegetarian or vegan diets, which is further than a lot of people want to go.

Demanding that people give things up for the climate isn’t a strategy that has worked very well in the past. So if we want to reduce meat consumption – and we really have to – then some intermediate goals might be more useful. Things that chip away at the culture of meat eating, that make it normal to choose differently. Here are a couple of things I’ve noticed recently that I think are helpful.

Let’s start in Ikea. I was in the Milton Keynes store this week, and I noticed that they were serving a Christmas dinner of kale roulade and roasted vegetables. There was a turkey option too, but it wasn’t advertised on the illuminated board. The traditional meat was available, but the one you were going to see first was the vegetarian option and I presume that was done deliberately. It’s the kind of subtle message that will support Ikea’s goal of serving 50% plant-based main meals in their restaurants by 2025. And when you consider that their plant-based meatball has just 4% of the climate impact of the main meatball, that makes sense, right?

If we can find our way out of Ikea, let’s pop in on Burger King in Austria. Over the summer they ran a little experiment. When people came in and ordered a burger, staff were instructed to ask ‘regular or meat-based’? It was a temporary campaign deliberately designed to promote their new plant burger, but it raises an important point. Making people express a preference one way or another is a really useful way of breaking down the idea that things should be meat by default.

That’s something that the charity Creature Kind have found with their Default Veg campaign. They encourage university and workplace cafeterias to swap the default. Rather than assuming that everyone wants meat and offering a vegetarian or vegan alternative, just switch them round. Make people ask for the meat option.

When caterers do this, it turns out that most people are quite happy to go with the plant-based option. Nobody gets to grumble that their carnivorous wants are being met, as it’s there if you ask. I suspect there’s a modest social pressure at work in having to ask, but the more powerful effect is just to change expectations and make plant-based the usual.

I might be wrong, but I suspect that these sorts of initiatives are more likely to win people round to eating less meat than campaigns to stop eating it altogether. It’s a legitimate choice for those that want to do that, but we also need campaigns and behaviours that gently erode meat-eating cultural assumptions. If you’ve come across any recently, let us know in the comments.

4 comments

  1. Yes, the default should be the plant based option, but as keen ‘foodies’ who are vegetarian with a strong plant-based bias we confront two problems.
    The first is that food and cookery programs on the TV, such as Masterchef, are all very meat focused – though with honourable exceptions such as the Bosh! boys (https://www.bosh.tv/).
    The second is that when eating out, the vegetarian or vegan options are to us all too often rather poor, or as we say ‘the chef does not know how to cook vegetables’ – this includes in some expensive classy restaurants that we have tried – the veg option comes across as a poorly considered afterthought to the menu, whilst our meat eating friends are usually more than happy with the quality of their dishes. The exceptions of course are restaurants from cultures with a strong plant-based cooking tradition, such as South Indian.
    In other words, catering training needs to up their game considerably and get chefs out there that know what they are doing, and restaurant owners need to demand chefs that are well trained in plant based cookery. As you say it is not ‘either/or’ with just the odd wholly vegetarian or vegan restaurant, but ‘both/and’ with quality plant based menu options everywhere which are highlighted in restaurant reviews for that quality.

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