Waarom bijten we in de hand die ons voedt?

Waarom bijten we in de hand die ons voedt?

Consumer attitudes and behavioral intents towards a more environmentally sustainable diet: A systematic review (2020)
over de thesis van Katoo Raemdonck

Promotor(en) Prof. dr. Anneleen Van Kerckhove, prof. dr. Jolien Vandenbroele, Faculteit Economie en Bedrijfskunde

Redactie Heleen Schockaert, Lore Ramon

Why do we bite the hand that feeds us?  

We cannot survive without this planet. Then why do we harm it in the way we do? 

The consumption of animal derived food has a massive detrimental impact on the environment (and our health).  Yet, consumption of animal-based food has been a heavily entrenched habit since ancient times. Is it possible to change someone’s diet for the better? And if so, how? 

The production and consumption of the livestock industry has a very bad impact on the environment: livestock contributes to 14.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, 83% of agricultural land use, 27% of fresh water consumption and 30% of total global land is used to raise cattle (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), while they only provide less than 20% of the world’s calories (6). Hence, it is not a surprise that the consumption of animal products leads to the loss of biodiversity, greenhouse gas pollution and an excessive use of water, energy and natural resources (7,8).  

If nothing is done, the situation will only exacerbate: GHG emissions derived from food and livestock will increase by 80% if we maintain the status quo (9), and food supply will need to increase by 70% in order to feed every human being by 2050 (10).  

In addition to these environmental aspects, we cannot ignore the impact animal-derived products have on our health. Consuming animal products has a direct link with cancer and increases the risk of dying with 400% (12). Additionally, a direct link between animal foods and cardiovascular diseases were also found (12). Because the consumption of animal products leads to plaque in our arteries (eventually clogging the arteries, inhibiting blood to flow), a Harvard study has shown that there is an 8% increased risk of succumbing to cardiovascular disease for every 10% calorie increase of animal-derived foods (13). Also, a direct link between diabetes type 2 and obesity has been established (14). There is also a clear link between pandemics and the consumption of meat. Take for example the coronavirus, which is a zoonotic virus, transferred from animals to humans due to consumption (11). 

However, if people are prepared to change diets it is possible to turn around the negative impact consumption of animal foods has on the environment and on our health (9). If everyone would follow a vegetarian diet, total greenhouse gas emissions per capita would be reduced by 55%, thus there would be no net increase in food production emissions in 2050, opposed to an increase of 80% when we stick to these bad consumption habits (9). Furthermore, if all land devoted to animal livestock would be devoted to growing fruits and vegetables, we would be able to feed an additional 10 billion people (15). As regards health, it is proven that maintaining a plant-based diet has highly positive effects with patients suffering from diabetes type 2, obesity and even multiple scleroses (16,17).  

Although the above-mentioned information is not new, many consumers are not aware of these facts, and if they are aware it is still a hard habit to break. False truths, advertising and social norms have impacted people’s lives and the addiction to animal-derived foods has become a bit too real (18).   

It is shocking to see how low environmental awareness is with consumers when it comes to the environmental impact of meat consumption. Moreover, Consumers perceive hardly any difference between the environmental impact of the production of meat and that of scientifically proven much more sustainable alternatives. Moreover, in the timespan of four years, awareness seems to not have increased at all.  

On a more positive note, consumer willingness to reduce meat consumption has increased over these same four years. Nonetheless, to what extent this willingness reaches is still ambiguous and gives no clear insight on performed behavior. Luckily, there are several more sustainable alternatives are already are now available (or will soon be available) on the market (e.g. plant-based alternatives, insect-containing products and cultured meat – not yet on the market but soon to be).  

Acceptance of plant-based substitutes to meat has evoluted in a positive way: consumption is increasing, and often even available in one’s consideration set. Nonetheless, a majority of consumers still perceives these substitutes as inferior (to meat).  

Cultured meat is an innovative meat-alternative: in-vitro cell culture makes it possible to produce lab-grown meat. A luxurious and expensive alternative, but still for most consumers an artificial and unauthentic product.  

A third alternative to meat is insects. Interest in entomophagy has risen in Western societies and has already been long culturally entrenched in Asia. Nonetheless, barriers like food neophobia and lack of familiarity impede consumption in the West.  

Of the 3 alternatives for meat, plant-based substitutes are best accepted but – as said above – it is also perceived as inferior to meat and such willingness to pay the right price is also low. 

This brings us to the issue at heart, it is important to promote healthier and more sustainable alternatives to meat, but how should companies target and influence consumers?

I have come to find that health considerations form the most important driver for people who already today have switched to plant-based eating. However, persuading consumers to change diets only via health-based marketing will not be enough.  It is too narrow offering too many people an excuse not to act.

Consumers will also need to be made socially responsible (not only worry about their own health) about the environmental issues at stake (21).

Furthermore, my research has also shown that the labeling (positioning) of the meat alternatives is very important. Labelling a plant-based product as ‘vegan’ has a negative connotation (19,22). However, labelling it as plant-based incites much more positive appeal. A cultured meat product should be marketed as a natural substitute for meat, not a synthetic lab-grown alternative (23). Insect consumption is best promoted as a processed ingredient into foods people know (7).   

I also believe that attempting to create behavioral change via marketing alone is not enough. The government needs to support more sustainable industries and needs to educate consumers on this topic. The fact that environmental awareness about the impact of meat (and all animal related products) is so low, does not come as a surprise, as there have been almost no to none educational campaigns on the issue.

There is also the inconvenient truth that many governments are still massively funding the meat industry which proves so harmful for the environment. In the European Union alone, subsidies of the livestock industry lie range between 28.5 and 32.6 billion euros (24). While the fruit and vegetable industries are only granted a 10% of this budget (25). 

The government could have a great (and positive) influence on consumption: by combining educational campaigns with regulatory measures. The government should regulate the supply side by placing a tax on meat products, redefining land in purpose of crop agriculture for human consumption, impose laws (and law enforcement) to stop deforestation issues and stop or reduce subsidizing the livestock sector. 

On a more personal note, I concluded that it is possible to change someone’s diet for his/her own good and for our common future. I did it myself. However, it is hard: it takes courage and persistence, but it is of great importance we do. It is important to change our behavior in order to survive. We all have an individual responsibility to not let the environmental situation worsen. Is it really that hard to consume in a different manner, when it benefits all of us? I think not.

The long-term benefits really outweigh the short-term sensation of animal-including diets. People should explore this new way of eating, too much is at stake. For our common good, we should all be aware of our individual impact. Like Joseph Poore of Oxford University said: “Maintaining a plant-based diet is the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth” (26). So let’s do that, because nothing is as important as our planet, giving us the means to survive. 

Photo: Chips (Dan Counsell, Unsplash)


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