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The psychological snags to eating less meat

Eating less meat to save the planet will require an evolutionary leap for many.

In early remarks on his appointment as our first Climate Change Commissioner, Rod Carr has spoken briefly about his personal efforts to reduce his impact on the environment. These include cutting down on how much meat he eats, pointing out that New Zealanders eat twice as much meat as people in some Asian nations, and 10 times more than people in India.

Carr is not alone in shifting his dietary behaviour for the sake of the environment, as I’ve written previously, and this doesn’t necessarily mean going cold turkey, as it were. Indeed, while 60% of vegetarians and vegans say that the environment is an important part of their decision-making about what they eat, 50% of those who eat meat also consider the environment.

There are other things that are important when we decide what to eat; environmental reasons are a relatively recent addition to the list. Moral motivations, for example, played an important part in the mid-1800s rise of vegetarianism. Long before then, there was the “Pythagorean diet” – after the classical scholar Pythagoras, who not only avoided meat and most animal products, but also insisted that his students do the same.

Unsurprisingly, 80% of modern New Zealand meat abstainers count moral motivations as important in their dietary choices, compared with 40% of meat eaters.

Health is important as well. Various international health organisations advocate either an entirely plant-based or low-meat diet. However, health is in the eye of the beholder and it’s easy to find people who argue that meat is good for you (as a source of protein, iron and other nutrients) or bad for you (saturated fats, etc). There’s a similar argument that we’ve evolved to eat meat – “My, what sharp front teeth you have” – or that we’ve evolved to eat plants (those grinding molars are for grains and legumes).

In New Zealand, 90% of meat eaters and 80% of meat abstainers endorse health as important in deciding what they eat. (Then again, who’d be silly enough to say, “I eat things because they’re bad for me”?)

Anyone who’s had a child will be familiar with another common dietary motivator: taste. In the research literature, this is called a “gustatory” motivation. Meat eaters win this one – 95% say taste is important, though meat abstainers aren’t far behind at 80%.

I’d bet that people who say taste is unimportant are probably thinking about vegetables, not meats. Anecdotally, the No 1 thing that people who stop eating meat miss is bacon.

The least-important things for New Zealanders are spiritual or religious reasons: fewer than 5% of meat fans and 15% of vegetarians and vegans say these are important in their dietary decisions.

These all make sense to me, but I think there’s also a place for more prosaic motivations. Meat and animal products are historically part of our cultural milieu. Although vegetarians and vegans often have well-developed answers to the question “why do you eat what you do?”, meat eaters, who constitute the majority, often haven’t even thought about it. Two-thirds of meat eaters say they eat what they do out of habit, compared with two-in-five vegetarians and vegans.

Even more mundane, however, is the issue of price. I’ve learnt that just because a student research participant says they’ve not eaten a serving of meat in a week doesn’t mean they’re vegetarian or vegan – it can simply mean they can’t afford it. Price is a factor for two-thirds of meat eaters, compared with a third of meat abstainers. At the same time, it ain’t necessarily cheaper going plant based when courgettes sometimes hit $20 a kilogram. No wonder more and more people are turning to their own gardens for sustenance.

This article was first published in the October 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.