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The reasons why people abstain from meat are changing

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Environmental concerns are driving our move away from eating animal meat.

I heard on the radio that we are moving towards reduced-meat diets and that the country is among the most veg*n-friendly nations in the world. By “veg*n” I mean people who abstain from eating animals (vegetarian) and the smaller number who don’t use any animal-based products (vegans).

According to the recently released Better Futures report, which revealed the results of a survey of 1000 people, one in 10 of us is following a meat-free or low-meat diet. This is quite an increase on a decade ago. I remember National MP Gerry Brownlee castigating me on a radio programme for my “unpatriotic” research into people’s social and political attitudes, which showed National Party supporters ate more meat than did the supporters of any other party. We must be increasingly unpatriotic, then.

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I became interested in this while I was an academic journeyman, sharing a student office with a long-haired Coloradan. Mike Allen specialised in consumer psychology: why we buy the things we do. And he was a vegetarian. So, when I asked people about their political attitudes, we also asked them what they ate. Although this was one of the first studies of its type, it didn’t show anything particularly earth-shattering. Vegetarians tend to see the world more holistically, with people, animals and nature all roughly equal in status, whereas omnivores view the world more hierarchically.

Since then, I’ve continued to ask people what they eat. It may not be a big question, such as “How does the brain work?”, but it is relevant to everyone’s lives and, as a result, laypeople are interested.

Recently, RNZ National’s The Panel host Wallace Chapman quizzed his panellists on the subject of our increasing veg*n-ness. One of them was flexitarian (eats meat occasionally, but doesn’t feel bad about it), and the other pescatarian (eats fish, but no meat). Both said the environmental effects of meat production were an important reason for their decision.

This marks a key difference between now and 10 years ago. There are a good number of reasons people eat the things they do, regardless of what it is, and it used to be that the two main reasons for meat abstention were ethical and health-related. Veg*ns avoided meat because they disagreed with the morality of our treatment and use of animals or because they wanted to be healthy.

Health is an interesting one, because meat-eating readers will have already started marshalling an army of health-related arguments for eating meat. Yes, meat is a good source of iron and the World Health Organisation has long argued for the benefits of a plant-based diet.

What this shows is that the same reasons veg*ns give for their dietary preference are also available and relevant to people in explaining their decision to eat meat. I’ve heard people make numerous moral arguments for eating meat. Some of them may not seem particularly convincing (“Have you seen a turkey? They’d die out if we didn’t farm them”), but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant to those people.

In a survey I did about five years ago, meat eaters’ most common reasons for their diet were gustatory (they liked the taste) and health, followed more distantly by habit and the perception that it’s cheaper than going completely plant-based. Veg*ns listed moral, health, taste and environmental reasons as their top four. See, you can eat or avoid meat because of the taste.

But concern for the environment is clearly the big mover. With so much focus on the climate, there is greater recognition that our addiction to meat has environmental consequences. The Better Futures’ finding probably signals a shift that will continue for some time.

This article was first published in the March 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.