Oxford academics call for more research into the effectiveness of meat-consumption intervention schemes 

Science and Technology University News

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Despite recognising that, due to the perceived normality of its place in our diet, the choice to eat meat goes largely unexamined, environmental researchers at Oxford University have stressed that ‘social norms can and do change’, and ought to be ‘aided by coordinated efforts of civil society, health organisations, and government’. Their review, entitled ‘Meat consumption, health, and the environment’ and published in the latest volume of Science, singles out the collation of more evidence for the relative effectiveness of different meat intervention schemes as the key to changing behaviour and thus reducing demand for meat.

Although there is little direct evidence concerning the value of certain intervention schemes, the review looks at a ‘body of potentially relevant work that might inform how [schemes] could be implemented’. One strand of possible intervention is based on reflective, conscious processing, such as nutritional labelling to encourage healthier dietary choices. This was largely a lesson taken from tobacco control, which proved crucial in gaining the support necessary for policy changes. Evidence that labels focussed on sustainability criteria change behaviour is markedly insufficient, however.

Unconscious behavioural processes are at the forefront of many other intervention plans. Positioning vegetarian options to appear before rather than after meat options on menus or in buffets, for example, may increase the number of people opting for meat-free meals, although more research is needed.

With a 25 million tonne increase in meat consumption between the years 1960 and 2010 (driven in part by a worrying surge in China’s consumption levels in the late 1990s, which saw the country overtake Europe as top consumer), it is difficult to dispute the growing importance of intervention schemes. The report cites the ‘substantial effects on people’s health’ that meat products are thought to have, alongside the ‘major negative effects’ that livestock production has on the environment, as the leading factors driving calls for consumption reduction.

The strongest evidence of the former is a link between colorectal cancer and processed and red meat, identified by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which has led to the classification of processed meat as carcinogenic to humans, and red meat as probably carcinogenic. Whilst how these varieties of meat promote colorectal cancer is not yet entirely clear, the review posits that ‘heme iron, N-nitroso compounds in many processed meats, and heterocyclic aromatic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures’, might be carcinogenic components.

Environmental concerns, on the other hand, are listed less tentatively. De Sy and colleagues estimate that approximately 71% of rainforest conversion in South America has been for cattle ranching; agriculture uses more freshwater than any other human activity, nearly 1/3 of which is required for livestock; meat production results in the emissions of all three GHGs (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide), being the most important source of methane — and the list goes on.

Despite the increasingly apparent importance of intervention schemes, however, the extent to which policy-makers have the ‘societal license’ to intervene in a bid to impact meat consumption remains unclear, as does what interventions will make the most meaningful difference. Given the economic and cultural basis underlying much demand for meat, understanding ‘how societal norms and narratives concerning meat consumption’ work and will evolve is fundamental if such a license is to be obtained.