Science to Share

What’s on your plate?

No more meat? Start with bite-sized steps

We now know that eating (too much) meat is bad for the environment. Various political parties, including GroenLinks, D66 and the ChristenUnie, discussed during the parliamentary elections in March 2021 that in order to achieve the government’s climate goals by 2030, our meat consumption must be reduced. Some parties even talked about a “meat tax”, an extra tax on a piece of meat. Yet it still appears to be difficult for many people to eat less meat, or to stop it altogether. Is it actually necessary to ban meat altogether for a better environment? We must first identify who eats meat and why “the meat-eater” does this. That is exactly what PhD candidate Sofia Wolfswinkel wants to do.

No meat for a week saves a lot
In the “Week without meat”, in the second week of March, a national campaign called for more attention to eat less meat. The question of how much meat we eat is an issue in politics and society. In 2018, “the hip vegetarian”, the organization behind the “Week without meat”, calculated how much the average meat-eating Dutch person saves in water and CO2 by not eating meat for a week. With the amount of water you could shower for 7 months (more than 7000 liters)! A week of meat is also good for almost 9 kilos of CO2 emissions, as much as 114 kilometers by car. For the same amount (1.4 kilos) of meat substitute you emit less than 6 kilos of CO2, about a third less.

The organization behind the “Week without meat” calculated the water and CO2 savings of a week without meat

More and more people seem to eat less meat. The annual Vegamonitor of “Nature & Environment”, in which the organization investigates people’s eating behavior, shows that fewer and fewer people really call themselves “meat eater”. It also seems that children are inspiring their parents to eat less meat. The Vegamonitor shows that one fifth of families with children between 13 and 17 years old eat less meat. 43% of meat-eating Dutch people called themselves flexitarian in 2019, someone who consciously eats less meat. In 2011 this was only 14%. You would think that if more people consciously eat less meat, then in total less meat would be eaten in the Netherlands. Contrary to expectations however, meat consumption has actually increased in recent years! It seems that people who still eat as much meat as they did a few years ago, have given themselves a different label. We appear to be making progress in Dutch, but we are not really eating less meat yet.

Meat consumption
The average annual meat consumption in 2019 was almost 78 kilos per Dutch person, which equates to about 1.5 kilos per week. Those who would follow the recommended guidelines of the ‘Schijf van Vijf’ would arrive at 25.5 kg per year. According to the international EAT Lancet committee, which investigates the best way to feed the total world population, with 15.5 kg per year you would also get enough protein. This equates to about 300 grams of meat per week. So on average we already eat five times more than is necessary. According to Greenpeace, skipping on about three hamburgers a week should be enough to achieve the Dutch climate goals. So now and then a piece of meat should certainly still be possible. The step towards eating less meat turns out to be very difficult for many people.

The “meat-eater”
What makes it so difficult to let the meat-eater cut down? Sofia Wolfswinkel is researching the relationship between social norms and meat consumption in Wageningen. According to her, the first problem is already in the term “meat-eater”. The use of this term puts people in boxes, while there are also huge differences in how much meat is eaten between individuals. During her research, she first wants to better map out the mutual differences in ‘the meat-eater’ and look at why people eat so much meat and why it seems difficult to stop. She expects that there is actually no general solution to get people to eat less meat.

Eating meat is still normal for many people. Why exactly that is, is now being investigated at the WUR. A meat tax could help, but it would first have to change how people perceive earing meat in general. Without adjusting this, you run the risk of enormous counter pressure from society. “You can now also see it with certain COVID-19 measures, the introduction of masks or the curfew, such a rapid change evokes resistance. Habitual behavior will have to change first, then support will naturally increase.”

Wolfswinkel is a vegetarian herself (“but I smuggle once in a while”) and has noticed that how the outside world views eating meat can have a lot of influence on your own behavior. For example, she was a very strict vegetarian for a while, because someone close to her was a strong proponent of eating a lot of meat. So for many people their own environment is very important. Meat is also still a central part of the diet for many people, as it is an important source of protein. Recent research by “Wageningen Economic Research” shows that our Western diet contains too many proteins. Many of our plant-based foods already contain enough protein, so meat is not necessarily needed for that.

Meat production has a greater impact on the environment than the production of meat substitutes. If the majority (the meat-eaters) would eat a little less, that would be more profitable than if people who already eat little meat became completely vegetarian. Meat is not necessarily required to have a healthy and varied diet, with enough protein. But it can still be delicious every now and then.



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