Eating less meat would be good for the Earth. Small shocks can change behavior

NEW YORK (AP) – Preston Cabral eats meat almost every day at home, but at school, his favorite meals are served on “meatless Mondays” and “vegan Fridays.”

“Today I ate chips, tangerines and this thing that was like chili but no meat, just beans,” the 12-year-old said after lunch at IS 318 Eugenio Maria De Hostos on Friday.

Monday and Friday lunches have inspired the Preston family to cook more vegetarian meals at home, which experts say is a healthy move for them and the planet.

Such programs are among the few that have been proven to work on one of the most challenging problems of the 21st century: How to get people to eat less meat?


EDITOR’S NOTICE: This story is part of the AP series “The Protein Problem,” which explores the question:


A new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Public Affairs Research Center found that a majority of US adults say they eat meat at least a few times a week. About two-thirds (64%) said they eat chicken or turkey that often, and 43% eat beef often.

But experts agree that the urgency of climate change and the demands of a growing global population require a rethink of how people get their protein.

“There has arguably never been a more important time in human history to transform our food system for the sake of people and nature,” the UK Coalition of Climate Scientists concluded in its 2020 analysis.

That will require changing consumer behavior about meat, especially in rich countries, experts say. From a health perspective, people in places like the US, Canada and Europe eat far more meat, especially red and processed meat, than is recommended. That puts them at risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke and other problems that plague rich countries.

Scientists say the average U.S. adult consumes about 100 grams of protein each day, mostly from meat, about twice the recommended amount. That’s more than 328 pounds of meat per person per year, including 58 pounds of poultry, 37 pounds of beef, 30 pounds of pork, and 22 pounds of fish and seafood, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Meanwhile, meat production is a major driver of climate change. The livestock sector is responsible for at least 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is the single largest source of methane, a major threat to Earth’s climate, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Association.

There is no doubt that reducing meat consumption can have real and long-lasting effects.

Scientists at the University of Oxford recently reported that vegans have 30% of the environmental impact of their diet as people who eat large amounts of meat. Vegans produced 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions and land use impacts, 46% of the water use, 27% of the water pollution and 34% of the biodiversity impacts than the highest meat eaters.

Notably, even low-meat diets contributed only about 70% of the environmental impact of a high-meat diet, writes study co-author Karen Papier.

“You don’t have to go full vegan or even vegetarian to make a big difference,” Papier said.

Young people can be key. They may be open to new ways of eating because they are more aware of climate change and the environmental costs of our current diets, said Dr. Martin Blahm, professor of environmental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

But he is worried about the pace of change. “I think it’s too slow.”

Changing human behavior, especially regarding something as important and intimate as the food we eat, is difficult, regardless of a person’s age.

Eating meat is an ingrained, commonplace part of everyday life in many parts of the world, says Julia Wolfson, who studies nutrition at Johns Hopkins University. Meat consumption in the U.S. is “larger in proportion” than in low-income countries, and meals often center around it. He recalled a famous ad from the mid-1990s that had a huge response across the country. “Beef. that’s what’s for lunch.’

In addition to its central role in the U.S. and other cultures, there are strong perceptions that meat is especially necessary “for young men to grow up healthy and strong,” he said.

At the same time, research shows that most people don’t even want to know about the negative consequences of eating meat, and are hindered by the so-called “meat paradox.” This is the term scientists use to describe the psychological conflict that occurs in people who like to eat meat but don’t like to think about the animals that died providing it.

The AP-NORC survey illustrates that conundrum.

About 8 in 10 US adults said taste is an extremely or very important factor when buying food, with cost and nutritional value following closely behind. Americans are much less likely to think about food’s impact on the environment (34%) or its impact on animal welfare (30%).

Despite these barriers, some interventions can reduce meat consumption, research suggests.

Emphasizing the connection between meat and animals seems to be working. For example, experiments that showed photos of meat dishes on restaurant menus alongside pictures of the animals they came from have consistently proven to reduce meat consumption, according to Stanford University researchers.

Another strategy is to emphasize animal welfare. Research subjects exposed to this information were more likely than control groups to buy or eat less meat or to say they intended to eat less meat, studies show.

Interventions described as “missiles,” or small choices to influence behavior, appear to be among the most effective in reducing meat consumption. Many are designed to help make healthy choices more convenient.

These can be as simple as reducing meat portions and increasing vegetables at home and in restaurants. Or they could include more prominent positioning of vegetarian offerings in grocery stores and buffet lines. In a 2021 study in the Journal of Public Health, vegetarian choices went from 2% to nearly 90% when researchers made meatless meals the default option on conference menus.

Some countries are considering more drastic measures. In the Netherlands, the Minister of Agriculture has proposed a tax on meat, an idea that is still being discussed. The city of Haarlem, outside Amsterdam, plans to ban advertising of “processed meat” in public places from 2025.

According to the AP-NORC survey, those options will not go over well in the US. About 7 in 10 US adults said they would somewhat or strongly oppose raising sales taxes on meat, and 43% would oppose banning public advertising of meat on public property.

Meanwhile, meat-free days are becoming more popular as Meatless Monday programs take root around the world.

“Meatless Monday was a huge success in raising awareness and starting a conversation about just small changes that can be made in a way that doesn’t seem overwhelming to people,” Wolfson said.

It seems to work at Preston Cabral’s school. Chef Ambassador Ricardo Morales says more children eat lunch at school on Fridays than any other day of the week.

“Vegan Day is just the biggest day we serve right now,” she said. “It’s bigger than hamburger day and even pizza day.”


The survey of 1,247 adults was conducted Feb. 16-20 using NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel sample, which is intended to be representative of the US population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science and Education Media Group. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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