Climate Change and Meat Consumption: Do Consumers Understand The Connection?
Many people are unaware that food production, especially that of meat, is one of the largest contributors to climate change. The more meat demanded and consumed, especially that of cow meat (“beef”), the more we contribute to the problem of climate change as a species. An analogous contributor to climate change is the transportation sector, with that of carbon-emitting vehicles. If this problem is taken at face value, then the solutions we have been given include driving electric vehicles, taking public transit, or simply driving less.
Similarly, solutions for mitigating the contribution food production makes to climate change include eating less meat and incorporating more vegetables and alternative protein options into our diets. However, advocates know all too well that getting consensus on these simple solutions is difficult to achieve. A recent study by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences explored what motivates consumers to respond or not respond to climate change; more specifically, they wanted to know what motivates consumers to change their diets and eating habits as a response to climate change.
Currently, the main way to motivate consumers to act on mitigating climate change is by appealing to the fear of an impending climate doomsday scenario. Therefore, the study presented participants with forecasts of what will occur if we globally continue business as usual including; how society, the participant, other species, and other people could be affected by climate change in the future. One prominent caveat and potential bias of study results is that the participants were residents of one of the wealthiest areas of Sweden, most being educated homeowners in their 50s.
As a response to the doomsday prompt, the participants were asked ‘in the future I intend to’ followed by six food actions: cut the number of meals with meat to half; cut the portion sizes of meat with half; refrain from eating meat completely; replace beef with chicken/fish/pork every other meal; eat chocolate only once a week; or eat vegetarian food twice as often as today.”
The largest predictor of the participants’ selection? Unsurprisingly, they were most motivated by how fearful they were of the doomsday scenario and whether or not they felt they should take action to mitigate the climate threat or simply manage their fear. The surprise of the study was that if a participant believed that climate change would have negative effects on others such as general society, people in poor countries, or animals and plants, that ended up being a strong predictor of mitigation intentions. In fact, the majority of participants perceived the climate change threat to others as higher than the threat to themselves.
Overall, respondents were most likely to replace beef with chicken/fish/pork and they were least likely to refrain from eating meat completely. The results showed that the participants, on average, did not believe altering their meat consumption habits would be effective at mitigating climate change. Respondents found that the cost of changing their meat consumption habits were relatively small until they were asked to abdicate from meat entirely, in which case they found the costs to be extremely high. The top three costs being referred to, in order of prominence, were perceived taste, requests from family such as instances where family members wanted to eat meat, and unfamiliarity with vegetarian diets (these results matched the findings in a separate Australian study).
The results of the study were used to derive recommendations for those communicating climate change and actions to mitigate it, such as the very people who read items in the Faunalytics Research Library. The researchers found that those who understood the severity of the climate change threat and its connection to meat consumption were likely willing to change their consumption habits; to reach them, the paper recommends that advocates should focus on increasing education to consumers in order to improve responses to climate change, rather than trying to overcome the perceived costs of reducing meat. In other words, we still need to create awareness that food and climate are linked. In addition, the researchers recommended that advocates should prioritize communicating the climate threat to others rather than the threat to the direct consumer themselves.
Lastly, the researchers stated that a one-size fits all approach will not work. As seen by the diverse responses to the study prompt, there are a multitude of consumer types and it is important for advocates to understand each of those consumer profiles. For instance, there are certain consumers that are skeptical of climate change and who, in the study, became skeptical of the notion of meat reduction due to the study connecting it to climate change. Therefore, if the goal is to reduce meat consumption, the strategy for the climate-skeptic consumer group may be to potentially focus on factory farming or health effects rather than climate change.