Averting Our Eyes From Meat Consumption & Pandemic Risk
Many infectious diseases such as COVID-19 are zoonotic, meaning that they originate in animals and are transmitted from them to people. While many reactionary strategies are being discussed in the public domain, relatively few outlets have argued that we should strive to prevent future pandemics instead — a notable exception being the general consensus to stop “wet markets.” Arguably, such support stems from the fact that most Westerners have never seen a wet market and thus there’s no perceived conflict of interest in promoting their demise.
Although many people can appreciate the numerous benefits associated with meat reduction, people also tend to avoid getting into situations where we would be confronted by the implications of our meat consumption. People tend to hold their pro-meat attitudes and beliefs protectively and engage in many justification strategies and mental gymnastics to defend their behaviors. In this way, we can feel morally okay with eating animals and keep the “meat paradox” induced feelings of guilt and discomfort at bay.
In this study, a team of researchers from the U.K. and Canada sought to examine:
- whether people focus on reactionary solutions to infectious diseases rather than far-sighted solutions aimed at prevention;
- how levels of meat commitment might exacerbate this short-sightedness.
In the first study of two, public perceptions of three potential contributors and corresponding potential solutions to the spread of infectious diseases were surveyed:
- Lack of human preparedness
- The trade and consumption of wild animals
- Factory farms and global meat consumption
The second study was experimental, with participants randomly assigned to read information linking the spread of infectious diseases to wild animal markets or factory farms. This was done to directly test the motivation behind why some people might willfully disregard available information on such causal links, making sure that lack of awareness is not skewing the results.
302 British adults were recruited for the first study. The sample was dominated by women (76.6%), with an average age of 32 years, and 85% indicating that they ate meat. The participants were asked to rate a set of items related to how much each of them should be considered part of the problem of disease spread. Eight of the items focused on the lack of human preparedness for a pandemic, eight items were related to the consumption and trade of wild animals, and seven items focused on factory farms and global meat consumption. Similarly, the surveyed people were asked to indicate the degree to which potential solutions are useful in reducing or preventing infectious diseases. Six such items focused on reactionary solutions meant to improve the response to and preparedness for infectious diseases, 10 items related to preventive solutions suggesting changes and policies targeting the consumption and trade of wild animals globally and in China. Similarly – nine items related to factory farms and global meat consumption. Finally, the participants were asked to fill out questions about their meat commitment, and political ideology alignment.
The first study tested and confirmed the following two preregistered hypotheses:
- Respondents were less likely to consider concerns about factory farms and global meat consumption compared to issues related to lack of preparedness
- Respondents considered preventive solutions targeting factory farms and global meat consumption less useful compared to reactionary solutions and solutions targeting the consumption and trade of wildlife
Furthermore, the participants scoring higher in meat commitment were significantly less likely to consider factory farms and global meat consumption to be part of the problem, and in need of changing to prevent future disease outbreaks. They were also less convinced of the usefulness of preventative solutions targeting factory farms and global meat consumption.
201 British adults were recruited for the second study, which was comprised 83% meat-eaters, and also broke down to 66% women, with an average age of 35 years old. The results indicated that solutions addressing zoonotic disease risk were considered overall more useful in the wild animal market than factory farm context. Two more researcher hypotheses were confirmed:
- Participants exposed to the same information relating infectious disease risk to factory farms continued to endorse reactionary solutions over preventive solutions.
- Participants higher in meat commitment tended to endorse preventive factory farm and farmed animal consumption solutions much lower than reactionary ones.
The two studies align well with previous research showing that the power of meat commitment can be prohibitive for behavioral change. Future research is welcome, and could shed more light on exactly why people willfully disregard such information. It could also help us understand if similar effects would be observed when people learn about the detrimental impact of animal agriculture on the environment. However, one thing is certain – there is clear resistance in the minds of the consumers. One that is even strong enough to outweigh information put forth by experts. Animal advocates pursuing effective outreach avenues should be mindful as a similar effect may take place in regions where wild animal markets are common. Here, people highly committed to eating wildlife may disregard measures targeting wild animal markets to tackle zoonotic disease risk. Since such interventions would implicate the consumers’ dietary habits, advocates might find it too cumbersome to overcome such strong beliefs via direct outreach.