The SCI organised a workshop on the topic of meat consumption, non-meat consumption and sustainability as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences
Whilst there is a broad consensus amongst academics and other experts that meat needs to be addressed as a social-ecological problem, the minutiae of how to do so are less certain. The Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) organised a workshop as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences to showcase current research and develop a dialogue with stakeholders on the topic of meat consumption, non-meat consumption and sustainability. The event was hosted by Jo Mylan (University of Manchester) and Carol Morris (University of Nottingham) convening speakers and an audience of around 50 scholars as well as policy, community, and industry stakeholders. The event generated collaborative discussion around how emerging insights can stimulate change and considerations of what future research is needed.
Chairing the round of academic speakers, Mike Goodman (University of Reading) compared vegan food marketing to that of Tesla’s electric cars: promoted as ‘cool’ and ‘speedy’ rather than electric and (arguably) more sustainable. Likewise, pleasure, novelty, and innovation are often foregrounded in the marketing of ‘plant-based’ foods with their ‘vegan’ credentials being relegated to the background, if mentioned at all. Leaving the ethical considerations of veganism aside, quite literally, seems to pay off, at least for attracting those willing to reduce but not relinquish meat consumption. However, it remains an open question as to whether de-politicising veganism is a good strategy in view of the magnitude of this social-ecological problem. As Nicklas Neumann (Uppsala University) noted, one could claim that instead of being made a spectacle, entirely plant-based meals need to become a self-evident, if not ‘boring’ part of our daily practices. But maybe, as Jo Mylan suggested, agreeing on a single ‘correct’ strategy need not be of central concern. So long as there is a certain societal unease towards meat, the specificities of why and how we approach the tipping point that Jimmy Pierson (ProVeg International) termed ‘peak meat’ are secondary.
Transitions and tensions
As both Nicklas Neuman and Piia Jallinoja (University of Tampere) noted for England and Finland respectively, meat consumption levels have remained in a steady state. Vegan consumers account for merely one per cent of these countries’ populations. Whilst China’s increased meat consumption and its environmental consequences have certainly caused concern, Alison Browne (Sustainable Consumption Institute) pointed out the slight recent decline in pork consumption, asking whether intensifying health and nutritional concerns – mainly about fatty and red meat – might have driven China to ‘peak pork’.
The academic panel addressed the role of media as well as technological and culinary innovations in the process Carol Morris called ‘de-meatification’. Carol Morris’ research had illuminated that both the mainstream right-wing press and the regional press of livestock farming areas report more negatively about campaigns such as Meat Free Mondays. Jonas House (University of Sheffield) illustrated that insect foods are marketed like vegan or vegetarian meat alternatives (although neither one nor the other) promising to be a more sustainable source of protein. Whilst cultural aversions to insect consumption certainly play a role, high prices and limited availability are also factors for reservations of European consumers. Alexandra Sexton (University of Oxford) illustrated a similarly contentious strategy, where big tech companies seek to slot cultivated meats from cellular agriculture into the current market frameworks promising little or no palatal disruption to conventional meat-eating.
The topic and practice of meat abstinence are no longer exclusive to self-identified vegans and vegetarians. Whether it is about personal health, the environment, or animal welfare, various concerns have started to drive a ‘reducitarian’ movement and respective marketing strategies. While reducers refrain from total abstinence, their dietary changes may involve significant reductions in absolute terms. Nevertheless, high meat consumption being the norm in the Global North is an unaltered social fact, with many consumers and businesses eschewing a vegan identity in their practices or products. Being vegetarian, however, has become more broadly accepted. Swedish brand Oumph!, for example, promotes their products as ‘epic veggie eating’ swerving a vegan label. Jennifer Pardoe (plantbased2business) emphasized similar practices in the UK market, as consumers respond better to labelling that accentuates taste and sensation such as ‘prime cut’, ‘oak-smoked’ or ‘crispy’, rather than promoting ethical benefits.
Put differently, vegan food practices are gaining mainstream momentum without being depicted as such. On the one hand, this approach to the issue perhaps does entice some people typically repelled by the moralistic claims associated with veganism. On the other hand, this also places people’s food pleasure as paramount and may obscure or downplay the radical changes needed to make food practices environmentally and socially sustainable. This was well illustrated by Angeliki Stogia (Executive Member for Environment at Manchester City Council and Chair of Manchester Food Board) being the only stakeholder panellist to highlight the social challenges a city like Manchester faces; tackling high rates of cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes were presented as equally as urgent as the unsustainable emissions of greenhouse gases (for which Manchester has a ‘zero-carbon’ target by 2050).
Stakeholders representing businesses were also averse to base their narratives explicitly on specific social-ecological problems or distinctive dietary identities such as veganism or vegetarianism – even if their products are consistent with such identities or tackling these problems. This is unsurprising as replacing livestock with alternative protein innovations is not primarily driven by ethical convictions, it also promises profits for those investing in the ‘innovations’ and expecting meaty returns. Not inclined to compromise on profits, capitalist business models are reflective of meat culture’s dominance insofar as their alternative proteins’ very appearance conveys the idea that meat cannot simply be dispensed with, it needs an engineered equivalent. The substitute industry can thus be understood as rooted in and profiting from the economic and cultural path-dependencies reflected in consumers’ inert taste buds and meat culture’s symbolic dominance – at the expense of openly advocating vegan ethics by foregrounding vegetables, grains, nuts, and mushrooms (which all contain protein) for their own sake.
In developing ‘better’ plant protein products, communicated with a focus on taste and sensation, presented as a meat substitute, business stakeholders promise that real impacts can be achieved. However, it remains questionable whether this strategy will bring change soon enough. After all, there is no significant departure from the consumer choice paradigm and the pursuit of profits in a capitalist economy if all that one dares to dream of is gently nudging meat consumers into ‘vegan’ – or rather ‘plant-based’ – products, while the planet desperately requires urgent, fundamental change.
The many tactics by which we transition away from meat can all help – but we must be strategic in how they are applied. Insisting on making the ethics behind food practices visible is often important but in other scenarios, it may help to leave such ethics aside. Social scientists have an important role in negotiating these situations, ensuring that involved actors cannot – in pursuit of financial or other profits – opt-out of responsibility or slowing this transition down. Social scientists have long problematised that consumers alone are too often held responsible for consumption patterns, and this has not changed. Balancing out this disparity will require work and research that, as Mike Goodman concluded, focuses not only on consumers but also on the broader ‘meatscape’, the producers and the local spaces of access such as supermarkets and restaurants.
In this context, we would like to call attention to the way protein dominates the discourse on meat reduction. Current debates (many voices at the workshop included), implicitly seem to take for granted the quest for novel proteins and evoke a need to worry about maintaining protein intake. Irrespective of whether the introduction of protein shakes, detox smoothies, and paleo diets is a response to existing consumer demand or a producer-induced ‘demand’; we are worried that these protein fears might actually – and unnecessarily – justify both highly processed plant ‘innovations’ and the continued production and consumption of actual animal protein. Evidence from nutritional sciences suggests that consumers of meat-based diets, as well as dairy-and-egg-eating vegetarians, do in fact exceed the official dietary recommendations for protein intake while a majority of people on an entirely plant-based diet meets them and a minority falls below (see the UK government’s dietary requirements and “Vegetarische Ernährung” by Leitzmann and Keller 2010: 266). If comprised sufficiently in vegan food practices, beans, lentils, sprouts, seeds, nuts, wholegrains or potatoes – whether we regard them as innovations or not – help to meet the recommendations in a well-grounded, potentially more ‘sustainable’ manner than meat or its substitutes.
Despite the promise of these alternatives, there has been no significant departure from the consumer choice paradigm and a food production system organised around the pursuit of profits and an endless search for ‘innovation’. Maybe the role of social science is to move the dial away not only from the dominance of meat-based diets but also from the meat-based culinary culture of substitution, its obsession with protein, and its individualistic concern for personal health. This also includes orthodoxies such as the idea that for enacting change there is no alternative to gently nudging consumers. If the era of animal-based culinary culture is supposed to pass, fundamental changes are not only required to consumption but also to production, its political-economic pre-conditions, and agricultural and gastronomic policies.
- Steffen Hirth is a PhD researcher at the SCI. His research examines the spatial and social localisations of responsibility in ‘sustainable’ food discourses and practices.
- Ema Johnson is a PhD researcher at the SCI. Her research explores alternative models of food provisioning systems and their capacity to transition to a more sustainable food system.
- Malte Rödl is a PhD researcher at the SCI. His research analyses the evolution of ‘meat analogues’ and the interconnectedness of changing consumption and production practices.