Here’s a simple way to convince people to eat less meat

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Simon Torkington, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • Meat and dairy accounts for around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization.
  • A new study found that meat-eaters can be “nudged” into making healthier food choices.
  • Techniques from behavioural science were applied to a virtual restaurant menu.
  • Results showed the most effective nudges could double meat-free choices.

Burger or salad? We might know what we should choose from a restaurant menu, but more often than not it’s the meat option that ends up in front of us.

Most of us know that vegetarian options are better for our health and the planet, and now scientists are studying how to convince us to make more sustainable choices.

A study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) found that “displaying thoughtfully framed environmental messages on restaurant menus can significantly increase customers’ uptake of lower carbon, plant-rich dishes”.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose’s impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

A nudge toward healthy eating

Researchers at WRI asked 6,000 meat-eaters to choose options from an online menu. Participants in the control group got a normal menu, while others were offered prompts that asked them to consider eating less meat. These subtle interventions are derived from a branch of behavioural science known as “nudge theory”. At its core is the idea that positive reinforcement influences decision making.

The messages were built around a number of themes and included the nudges below.

Health and environment: “You will be surprised how much positive impact plant-based food can have on both the planet and your health. Choose plant-based dishes to lower your carbon footprint and improve nutrition. It’s about goodness for you and the planet.”

Joining a movement: “90% of Americans are making the change to eat less meat. Join this growing movement and choose plant-based dishes that have less impact on the climate and are kinder to the planet.”

Small changes, big impact: “Each of us can make a positive difference for the planet. Swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years. Your small change can make a big difference.”

The results from the trial show a dramatic rise in the selection of non-meat options by those who were nudged to make healthier and more sustainable choices, as the chart below illustrates.

A chart showing percentages outcomes from the trial.
The study saw a dramatic rise in the selection of non-meat options by those who were “nudged” to make healthier choices. Image: World Resources Institute

The two most effective nudge interventions saw the choice of non-meat items roughly double when compared with the choices made by members of the control group.

The researchers behind the study concluded that, “these changes could make a big difference when it comes to reducing food-related environmental impacts if realized on a population scale”. They do add that further real-world testing is required to see if similar results are achieved.

The carbon footprint of meat production

Raising animals to produce food for human consumption has a major impact on the planet. Meat and dairy accounts for around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Reducing our consumption of meat and eating more vegetables could make a significant dent in the carbon reductions required to meet net-zero targets, as the chart below shows.

A chart showing emissions from different food groups.
Eating less meat would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Image: Carbon Brief
Tweet with a video still, asking what would happen if everyone stopped eating meat.
What if the whole world went vegetarian? Image: Twitter/@wef

Follow this link to watch the video on Twitter.

A sustainable diet for all

For lifelong carnivores, switching to a meat-free diet may seem daunting, but the WRI study appears to show they can be convinced. For those who may struggle to come up with alternative sources of protein, the EAT-Lancet Commission has developed the Planetary Health Diet that is healthy for both people and the planet.

Infographic showing a universal sustainable diet.
Leading food and climate scientists have created a universal diet that would be healthy and sustainable for all. Image: The EAT-Lancet Commission

With this diet, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes make up the bulk of foods consumed. Meat and dairy are included but in significantly smaller proportions.

So, the next time a waiter hands you a menu and you are confronted by that burger or salad question – which one will you choose?

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