Newsletter No 1 March 2012

More vegetarian lifestyles can be facilitated by government and industry

Food production and consumption have the single largest environmental impact of all human activities. Particularly, the growing demand for meat, fish and other foods derived from animal protein are problematic. A cultural perspective reveals that the dominance of animal foods is still recent and that there are various options for policy makers in government and industry to facilitate behavior change.

food1Current food production and consumption patterns are associated with negative consequences for the environment and human health. While food sustainability needs to be regarded as a complex policy problem that demands trade-offs and raises difficult dilemmas as a consequence, there is considerable evidence that particular consumption patterns are problematic and that changing them can have great social and environmental benefits. Particularly, the growing demand for meat, fish and other foods derived from animal protein in affluent Western countries have been identified as the most serious threat to environmental sustainability and human health. Environmental problems are a consequence of intensive livestock production that uses up to 10 times the quantity of natural resources such as land, energy and water relative to equivalent amounts of vegetarian food. On top of that, there is increasing concern about animal welfare in these farming systems. Social problems are experienced locally and globally. The overconsumption of animal derived protein (most affluent Western countries consume on average 70% more protein than neededempty) has been associated with various health problems and obesity. Moreover, high protein diets in the West increasingly demand resources in developing countries, endangering the subsistence of local farmers and increasing a situation of global inequality, political conflict and social unrest.

Given the scale of these problems, it is easily overlooked that they relate directly to everyday consumption practices that are driven by individual and collective value-orientations reflecting our social and cultural norms. It has been argued, that the entire system of food production, distribution, and consumption can be understood as a project of collective national identity. Therefore, the challenge of building a more sustainable system can only be fully addressed if social and cultural norms underpinning the consumption of animal foods are closely examined and taken into account when thinking about solutions. Moreover, it is now acknowledged that changes in consumption and lifestyle will need much more attention, as technological innovation and improvement of production processes do not suffice to ease the environmental and social problems associated with high protein diets. Potential pathways for change must take into account pluralistic values and norms that characterize modern society. A better understanding thereof can facilitate behavior change and it can help consumers make better choices.

One of the ways to study pathways for a transition is to look at the changes of the recent past. This perspective is crucial to better understand meat’s special cultural status. A key strategic point is that meat’s special status can be distinguished from its mass consumption. Although complex societies throughout history made use of animals and their meat to provide food, to establish social distinctions as wealth and status and to foster social unity through the symbolic manipulation of animals in ritual, the upsurge in consumption of meat is a relatively recent phenomenon. The transition from cereal protein (i.e. bread) to animal derived protein in Europe was finalized only after World War II. Nevertheless, most Western European countries belonged to the group of major meat consumers already before that, which may have paved the way for the steep increase that followed. Today, meat consumption is the result of a chain of industrial activities that produce highly standardized meat products, commonly sold in supermarkets and de-animalized to avoid reminding customers about the link between the meat dish and the killing of an animal. Hence, it is not meat’s special status that has to be the primary focus of change efforts, but its heavily routinized consumption, which accounts for the sheer volume of meat.

To achieve a partial substitution of animal-based proteins by plant proteins a survey was carried out among Dutch consumers regarding their practices related to meat, meat substitution and meat reduction. The practices reflected a cultural gradient of meat substitution options running from other products of animal origin and conventional meat free meals to real vegetarian meals. The results demonstrated the influence of meal composition, familiarity with different kinds of food, cooking skills, preferences for plant-based foods and motivational orientations towards food. In particular, a lack of familiarity and skill hampered the preparation of real vegetarian meals. Based on the findings we propose a diversified understanding of meat substitution and we specify four policy-relevant pathways for a transition towards a more plant-based diet, including an incremental change towards more health-conscious vegetarian meals, a pathway that utilizes the trend towards convenience, a pathway of reduced portion size, and practice-oriented change towards vegetarian meals.

Hanna Schösler conducted PhD research on this subject at the IVM. The defense will take place in the autumn of 2012.



· Schösler, H.; de Boer, J.; Boersema, J.J. (2012). Can we cut out the meat of the dish? Constructing consumer oriented pathways towards meat substitution. Appetite 58, 39 - 47.  

· Schösler, H (2010). Consumptiepatronen kennen eigen grammatica. Milieu, Special ‘Van Grond tot Mond’.


·  Schösler, H.; de Boer, J.; Boersema, J.J. Caring for food and sustainability in a pluralistic society. Currently under review at the ‘Journal for Ecological Economics’.
Schösler, H.; de Boer, J.; Boersema, J.J  Meat consumption and climate change. An inconvenient couple? Currently under review at the 'Journal for Environmental Psychology’.
Schösler, H.; de Boer, J., Boersema, J.J. A sustainability view on gourmets. Are values of Slow Food members fit to moderate meat consumption? Forthcoming.

Schösler, H.; de Boer, J., Boersema, J.J. The organic food philosophy. A qualitative exploration of the practices, values and beliefs of Dutch organic consumers and the cultural-historical background of organic consumption in the West. Currently under review at the ‘Journal for Agricultural and Environmental Ethics’.