Eating less meat would be good for the Earth. Small shifts can change behavior

NEW YORK (AP) Preston Cabral eats meat almost every day at home, but his favorite meals at school are served on Meatless Mondays and Vegan Fridays.

Today I ate chips, tangerines and what looked like chili but no meat just beans, said the 12-year-old after lunch on Friday at IS 318 Eugenio Maria De Hostos.

The Monday and Friday lunch inspired Preston’s family to make more vegetarian meals at home, sparking what experts say is a healthy change for them and the planet.

Programs like these are among the few that have been proven effective for one of the most difficult problems of the 21st century: how to get people to eat less meat.


EDITOR’S NOTE This story is part of The Protein Problem, an AP series that examines the question: Can we feed this growing world without starving the planet?


A new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that most American adults say they eat meat at least a few times a week. About two-thirds (64%) said they often eat chicken or turkey, and 43% eat beef that often.

But experts agree that the urgency of climate change and the demands of a growing global population require rethinking how people get their protein.

There has probably never been a more important time in human history to transform our food system for the benefit of people and nature, a coalition of UK climate scientists concluded in a 2020 analysis.

That will require a change in consumer behavior around meat, especially in rich countries, experts say. From a health perspective, people in places like the US, Canada and Europe eat far more meat, especially red meat and processed meat, than is recommended. This puts them at risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke and other problems that plague wealthy nations.

Scientists say the average US adult consumes about 100 grams of protein, mostly meat, each day, about twice the recommended amount. That translates to more than 328 pounds of meat per person each year, including 58 pounds of poultry, 37 pounds of beef, 30 pounds of pork and 22 pounds of fish and seafood, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

At the same time, meat production is a key driver of climate change. The livestock sector is responsible for at least 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is the largest single source of methane, the biggest threat to the Earth’s climate, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

There is no doubt that reducing meat consumption could have real and lasting effects.

Researchers from the University of Oxford recently reported that vegans have 30% the environmental impact of their diet as people who eat large amounts of meat. Vegans produced 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions and land use impacts, 46% of the water use, 27% of the water pollution and 34% of the biodiversity impacts of the top carnivores.

Notably, even low-meat diets contributed only about 70% of the environmental impact of high-meat diets, wrote study co-author Keren Papier.

You don’t have to be full vegan or even vegetarian to make a big difference, Papier said.

Younger people can be key. They may be open to new ways of eating because they are more aware of climate change and the environmental costs of our current eating patterns, said Dr. Martin Bloom, professor of environmental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

But he is worried about the pace of change: I think it is going too slowly.

Changing human behavior, especially when it comes to something as important and intimate as the food we eat, is a challenge, regardless of a person’s age.

Eating meat is an ingrained, common part of everyday life in most parts of the world, said Julia Wolfson, who studies nutrition at Johns Hopkins University. Meat consumption is orders of magnitude higher in the US than in low-income countries, and meals often focus on it. She recalled a well-known commercial from the mid-1990s that resonated across the country: Beef: What’s for Dinner.

In addition to its central role in American and other cultures, there are strong perceptions that meat is necessary, especially for young boys to grow up healthy and strong, she said.

At the same time, research shows that most people are reluctant to even learn about the negative impacts of eating meat and are prevented by the so-called meat paradox. It’s a term scientists use to describe the psychological conflict that occurs in people who like to eat meat but don’t like to think about the animals that died giving it to them.

The AP-NORC survey illustrates that conundrum.

About 8 in 10 American adults said taste is an extremely or very important factor when buying food, with price and nutritional value coming in close behind. Americans are much less likely to prioritize food’s impact on the environment (34%) or its impact on animal welfare (30%).

Despite these obstacles, certain interventions can reduce meat consumption, research shows.

Emphasizing the connection between meat and animals seems to be working. For example, experiments that showed photos of meat dishes on restaurant menus alongside pictures of the animals they came from have consistently proven to reduce meat consumption, according to Stanford University researchers.

Another strategy is to emphasize animal welfare. Subjects exposed to this information are more likely to buy or eat less meat or say they intend to eat less meat than controls, studies show.

Interventions described as incentives, or small choices aimed at influencing behavior, appear to be among the most effective in reducing meat consumption. Many are designed to help make healthy choices more convenient.

These can be as simple as reducing meat portion sizes and increasing vegetables at home and in restaurants. Or they can include more prominent positioning of vegetarian offerings in grocery stores and buffets. In a 2021 study in the Journal of Public Health, vegetarian choices increased from just 2% to nearly 90% when researchers made meatless meals a default option on conference menus.

Some nations are considering more drastic measures. In the Netherlands, the Minister of Agriculture proposed the introduction of a tax on meat, which is still being discussed. The city of Haarlem, outside Amsterdam, will ban the advertising of industrialized meat in public spaces from 2025.

Those options would not fare well in the US, according to the AP-NORC poll. About 7 in 10 American adults said they would be somewhat or strongly opposed to raising taxes on meat sales, and 43% would oppose a ban on public advertising of meat on government property.

Meanwhile, meat-free menu days are becoming more common, and Meatless Monday programs have taken off around the world.

Meatless Monday has had a lot of success in raising awareness and starting a conversation about just the small changes a person can make to make people seem less overwhelming, Wolfson said.

He seems to work at the Preston Cabrals school. Ricardo Morales, a chef ambassador, said more children receive school lunch on Fridays than any other day of the week.

Vegan Day is just the biggest day we serve right now, he said. It’s bigger than hamburger days and even pizza days.


The survey of 1,247 adults was conducted Feb. 16-20 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which was designed to be representative of the US population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.


The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Science and Education Group. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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