The “Both Sides” Myth Of Diet Change
For years, the media covered climate change as an issue with “both sides,” where stakeholder input from the animal farming industry was pitted against scientific evidence. According to the authors of this paper, giving scientific evidence the same importance as industry opinions led to many years of critical inaction by individuals, governments, and global corporations.
The authors don’t want the same thing to happen with other environmental issues, such as reducing food waste and adopting environmentally-friendly diets. Multiple studies show that reducing food loss and waste (FLW) and shifting away from high-meat diets is critical for improving food sustainability. For example, global FLW uses 30% of worldwide agricultural land, while animal farming contributes only 18% of the world’s calories while using 83% of agricultural land and emitting 70% of agriculture-based greenhouse gases.
Research has shown that the media plays an important role in framing social and environmental issues for the public. However, media coverage is often influenced by stakeholder power and resources. The goal of this study was to reveal how the U.S. media covers FLW and diet change. The authors analyzed 238 articles in 29 U.S. newspapers from 2018 to 2020, focusing on the strategies journalists recommended, who was given a voice in the articles, and how the issues were framed.
There were some similarities between how the two issues were covered. For example, journalists frequently focused on encouraging individual change (instead of policy or structural changes). The articles also discussed new products and innovations to combat FLW and encourage plant-heavy diets, such as plant-based coatings to extend the shelf life of produce items and plant-based meats to replace conventional animal meat.
However, there were notable differences. Overall, the media framed reducing FLW as a positive action with collaboration among stakeholders. The authors point out that FLW is a straightforward concept — the public can instinctively see the benefits of being less wasteful and therefore feel empowered to effect change by reducing FLW. The articles also favorably highlighted partnerships between private companies, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels toward achieving reduced FLW.
Diet change, however, was presented as a topic with “two sides.” In discussing dietary choices, the articles highlighted the importance of individual preferences, even though studies have shown that diets are heavily influenced by corporations and governmental policies. The negative economic impacts of reduced meat and dairy consumption were repeatedly emphasized, and programs that could help transition animal product producers to other types of food production or initiatives to levy taxes on animal products were seldom discussed.
Most significantly, high-profile scientific reports emphasizing the critical need for diet change were often pitted against industry opinions. For example, contrary to scientific evidence, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association was quoted in an article as saying “ …beef can be part of a sustainable food system… beef cattle account for only a few percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. while converting inedible plants like grass into usable protein.”
One limitation of the study is that the authors focused on newspapers with large national circulations and excluded other news sources. Additionally, it wasn’t possible to determine the number of people who read each article. Nevertheless, the analysis paints a picture of the general media sentiment toward environmental sustainability issues, and it can help inform future advocacy campaigns.
The authors point out that there are many evidence-based downsides of heavy animal product consumption, such as the impact on climate change, pollution, food insecurity, and health. As such, it’s up to animal advocates to show the media that this isn’t a “both sides” issue. To do this, media relations campaigns (and other stakeholder communications campaigns) should include both an emotional and a factual component. Messages should be tailored to the audience with accessible language that discusses the evidence in terms that anyone can understand. Finally, advocates should be prepared to combat industry opinions with reliable scientific evidence that proves there is only one way forward to improve the global food system.