Nudging Consumers To Reduce Meat Demand: A Science-Based Approach
By now, it is widely agreed that, along with other urgent measures, a massive shift away from our over-reliance on animal protein is essential for the survival of the planet and its inhabitants. However, we know far less about effective strategies to reduce demand on the consumer side. A new study published on The Lancet Planetary Health tries to fill this gap by analyzing the efficacy of different interventions in changing consumer behaviour towards a lower demand for meat.
Previous research has shown that simply providing information on the negative environmental impact of meat production isn’t enough to modify consumers’ habits in a lasting way. This happens because even if we’re consciously aware of the impact of eating meat, other powerful and unconscious factors (e.g., conviviality, lack of appetizing alternatives) often drive us to default to long-standing habits. However, there is an array of alternative strategies that can be used to influence behavior towards reducing meat consumption, often without us even being aware of them.
The authors of this study carried out a systematic review of research reporting the effects of different types of interventions in the microenvironments − places where people buy or consume food − on meat demand. Some examples of changes to the microenvironment that can have an influence on meat demand were reducing portion sizes of meat, providing or promoting meat alternatives, repositioning meat products to make them less prominent, and altering prices.
In their final analysis, the authors included 14 papers reporting the results of 18 studies and the effects of 22 different interventions, for a grand total of 11,290 observations on individuals. The results of the review were analyzed to determine which interventions were most effective in changing consumer behavior.
The findings show that some interventions have more potential than others for reducing meat demand and consumption. Here are some examples of successful interventions taken from the study:
- People presented with smaller meat portion sizes over a period of time, both in real-life contexts and in a laboratory context, decreased their meat consumption.
- Consumers offered meat-free or reduced-meat alternatives as well as individual coaching, cooking lessons or education over several weeks reduced their meat consumption, and the effect tended to persist over time.
- Consumers increased their preference for plant-based alternatives if meat products were made less appealing compared to meat-free products (for instance by adding a picture of an animal’s head next to the picture of a specific dish).
- Students increased their demand for vegetarian meals if these were presented more prominently than meat options in online menus and in canteens. Changing the verbal description of meat-based meals on a menu, for instance by using the wording “meat” instead of “standard” or “normal” increased demand for vegetarian meal options.
In contrast, consumers were less inclined to buy less meat based on considerations of price. Similarly, adding information on labels about sustainability had no detectable effect on purchasing habits.
This systematic review had some limitations, which the authors describe. For instance, not all studies included in the analysis were peer-reviewed, due the novelty of the field and the need to include as much information as possible; additionally, most studies were carried out in high-income countries, and some relied on self reporting to measure behavioral change. Nonetheless, it was still possible to identify the most promising strategies to reduce meat demand, and namely: reducing portion sizes, offering appealing and well-positioned meat-free alternatives to consumers, and manipulating the sensory properties of meat and meat-free products.
While these interventions are effective, the study concludes that animal advocates should persist in educating the general public on the effects of excessive meat consumption on animal welfare, the environment, and public health. Providing information and education remains a staple and should always accompany any practical intervention for maximum cumulative impact, and as recent news reports show, more drastic reductions in meat consumption may be necessary sooner rather than later.