Commentary: Swing and a miss

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In a new study published in Appetite, a trio of Dutch researchers is suggesting the “new initiatives are needed” to reduce global meat consumption in advance of the mid-century point, when the authors claim that demand will outstrip supply.

That’s not exactly fresh, breaking news, I’ll admit. But what’s interesting is what the authors are advocating is actually counter-intuitive.

Let me explain what I mean.

The researchers — Joop de Boer, Hanna Schosler, and Harry Aiking — interviewed more than 1,000 people to try to determine which strategies worked best in lowering meat consumption. De Boer, who is a senior researcher in the Institute for Environmental Studies at VU University in Amsterdam, told FoodNavigator.com that different strategies appear to have different strengths and weaknesses, making them complementary pathways to facilitate changes in the amounts and sources of protein consumed.”

That’s a fancy way of saying that a shotgun approach seems to have an impact, but may not be enough — if, of course, the goal is to get people to stop eating meat in the manner that they’ve always done.

“Meat’s special status in society is closely connected to the structure of meals, such as the notion of one piece of meat and two vegetables,” de Boer said. “Hence, just asking consumers to eat less meat may trigger not only resistance to change but also confusion regarding the amounts and sources of protein.”

That’s a very fancy way of saying that meat has always been at the center of the plate and taking it away entails a lot more than rhetoric about impending planetary destruction.

The real source of the problem

The research team’s report went on to suggest that certain consumer segments would respond better to different arguments and strategies. There’s a name for that — I believe it’s called “Marketing 101.”

Further, they make the point that “change strategies” should focus on “the whole diet, and pay attention to a whole diverse range of dietary choices.”

Such fabulous insights are Exhibit A for people working to make the case against funding for academic research. Even when the conclusions of some study are couched in appropriate scientific blather, it starts to sound like a re-statement of the obvious.

But here is the real problem with this study and every other one aimed at reducing global consumption of animal protein: It’s not the methodology, or even the conclusions that are the problem. It’s the fact that the premise is all wrong.

If demand for meat looms as a problem, given resource limitations, land-use issues and constraints on energy affordability and water availability, then it’s critical to identify the actual source of the problem. And with all due respect to the scientific credential of de Boer’s research team, they’re looking in the wrong place.

When it comes to reducing the consumption of meat, Western populations in the developed world have already done that.

Beef consumption per capita is down considerably in the last generation; pork consumption has shown no growth at all, and without export tonnage, it’s questionable whether the poultry industry would be enjoying its current profitability.

Meanwhile in foodservice, non-meat menu choices are rapidly expanding, veggie recipes are among the hottest contemporary cookbook themes and there’s hardly a banquet, catered event or long-range airline flight that doesn’t routinely offer vegetarian options.

The “reduce your meat consumption” message has sunk in across North American and Europe. We’re eating less meat — by choice and with none of the “confusion” de Boer’s team postulated might accompany such an evolution.

The “problem” of excess demand for meat doesn’t reside with the 1,000 consumers interviewed for their study. The problem is the 1,000 million people in Asia and Latin America with newfound purchasing power to add animal foods to their diets. They’re the “problem.”

Instead of trying to convince Western populations to further reduce their historical meat consumption patterns, meatless meals advocates need to direct their message to the billions of people in China and elsewhere in South Asia who can now purchase meat and dairy products they’ve always desired but couldn’t previously afford. With an emerging middle class whose numbers dwarf the combined populations of the United States and Western Europe, the challenge in reducing demand for meat lies with those folks, not us.

They’re the ones who need to be shown “strategies to change meat-eating frequencies and meat portion sizes.”

Good luck with that.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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Allison    
MT  |  February, 20, 2014 at 05:30 PM

Dan, I always look forward to your writings. You eliminate the noise, distill the information down to the point and elegantly go in for the kill. game, set, match.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  February, 21, 2014 at 06:01 PM

Thanks for those kind words. Very much appreciated --both the comment and the readership.


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