Peer pressure should not be underestimated. Having vegetarian friends is a way to reduce your own meat consumption. Photo: /Fairphone CC BY-SA

How to get people to eat less meat

Personality, friends, religion and political instruments all have an impact on what we eat. A successful strategy to reduce meat consumption therefore needs to have a mixed approach that targets different factors simultaneously.

Livestock farming contributes to emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases, including more than 90 per cent of the EU’s ammonia emissions and about half of the EU’s methane emissions. Decreased meat consumption has been a recurring recommendation to bring these emissions down.

In a meta-study, researchers from Greifswald University have studied barriers and opportunities for reducing meat consumption in developed and transition countries. They found 155 studies that covered the topic in different ways. Barriers and opportunities were categorised into three main types: personal factors, socio-cultural factors and external factors (table).


Barriers & Opportunities

Personal factors   
Awareness and skills    Awareness of the impact of meat-eating; degree of cooking skills
Values and attitudes Priority on values that favour low meat-consumption
Emotions and cognitive dissonance Cognitive dissonance blocks awareness and value through denial and defence mechanisms
Habits and taste Day-to-day routines and taste preferences
Sociodemographic variables and personality traits Gender, age, class and personality predict food preferences
Perceived behaviour control Perceived ability to control behaviour correlates with the actual ability to behave in that way
Socio-cultural factors      
Culture and religion  There are cultural beliefs and symbolism connected to meat. In several religions, meat-eating is associated with different taboos  
Social identity and lifestyle    What you eat is a social marker in the construction of identity and lifestyle
Social norms, roles and relationships     Perception of normative behaviour by socially connected peers will influence food choices
External factors  
Political and economic factors Political targets and recommendations, subsidies and taxes, internalising environmental costs
Food environment    Presence of facilities that offer affordable, healthy and tasty non-meat alternatives  

Some of the factors are similar to those that predict other types of behaviour that have an environmental impact. Awareness of the negative consequences is needed in order to bring about change. Awareness of the environmental impact of animal products has grown, but is still quite low. In one study, only 30 per cent of people identified meat and livestock as a significant contributor to climate change. Many people also believe that meat is necessary for a meal to be nutritious. People also need skills to change their behaviour, such as a knowledge of vegetarian cooking.

Values have a strong impact on people’s behaviour. Studies have shown that moral values, particularly concerning animal welfare, are one of the key factors that influence someone to become vegetarian.

Adequate knowledge and values are not always enough, however. Cognitive dissonance is a negative feeling that occurs when you have multiple contradictory ideas simultaneously. Common strategies to reduce such dissonance include denial and delegation. The latter can be to blame politicians or food corporations instead of taking responsibility oneself.

Day-to-day routines are an often-identified barrier to reduced meat consumption. “Convenience” is important in an age when many people feel that they have little time, lack of knowledge or interest in cooking. That they like the taste of meat is often mentioned as a reason when people are asked to justify a high level of meat consumption. Taste preferences are not however independent from other factors such as identity and moral beliefs.  

Gender is found to be one of strongest factors predicting level of meat consumption. Men tend to eat more meat than women and are also less willing to reduce their consumption.  There are also signs of a generational shift where young people have the highest proportion of vegetarians and are more open to “flexitarian” eating, meaning to actively omit meat from some meals without excluding meat completely from the diet.

Fatty meats are nowadays associated with low-income groups and poor education in many western countries. The proportion of vegetarians increases slightly with level of income. However, in emerging economies, such as China, meat consumption is still seen as an indicator of wealth.

Personality traits also play a role. Not too surprisingly, conscientious people are better at reducing their meat consumption than people who are not. Openness and agreeableness are also traits linked to environmentally conscious behaviour.

The perceived ability to control behaviour is also important in changing one’s behaviour. People who lack the feeling of self-efficacy tend to regard barriers such as high prices and poor supply as greater than people who do not.

Many people see meat-eating more as a cultural norm than active choice. There are also several cultures and religions where meat-eating is surrounded by various restrictions and taboos, e.g. Lent in Christian tradition and the importance of not hurting other living creatures in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Peer pressure should not be underestimated. One study shows that for men, the number of vegetarian and non-vegetarian friends is the greatest predictor for their level of meat consumption. The behaviours of others in social occasions can work both as a barrier and an opportunity.  

What you eat is also a social marker of identity. The concept of flexitarianism that has emerged in the past few years offers an opportunity for people to identify with a diet low in meat without going vegan or vegetarian.

Among the external factors, economy is one of the more obvious ones. Livestock products are directly and indirectly subsidised in many countries and price has a strong influence on people’s food choices.

The food infrastructure also plays a part. Supermarkets and restaurants must offer meat-free alternatives in order for people to choose them. There has been a massive growth in vegetarian alternatives in recent years, but availability can vary, even between neighbourhoods in the same city.

Though there is growing institutional awareness about the negative environmental impact of meat and livestock production this has not yet translated into policy. Nevertheless, steps have been taken. Germany has included reduced meat consumption in its national climate goals and China is running a campaign to halve meat consumption. Private companies such as IKEA are promoting vegan alternatives in their restaurants.

The researchers argue for a mixed approach to encourage synergies between the different factors they identified. Different groups need to be targeted with different arguments. For older people and men, health arguments and flexitarianism (reduced meat consumption) are believed to be more effective.

They also stress the importance of prominent role models – actors, musicians, politicians and sport heroes – taking a lead, such as Paul McCartney, Bill Clinton, Mike Tyson and Kate Winslet. They can help and encourage people to do the right sustainable thing even if they are surrounded by sceptics.

Finally, they call for more political and economic measures, “these include removing harmful subsidies from livestock production, imposing taxes and more generally internalising social and environmental externalities in food production costs”.

Kajsa Pira

Reducing meat consumption in developed and transition countries to counter climate change and biodiversity loss: a review of influence factors, by Susanne Stoll-Kleemann and Uta Johanna Schmidt,



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