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Reducing meat and dairy consumption: easier said than done, or easier done than said?

Not just easy; also delicious. Caterpillar Dream

In his 2011 ASSA Cunningham Lecture this month, food policy expert Professor Tim Lang suggested that we “experiment” with alternative diets to reduce our meat and dairy consumption. Lang suggested that an evidence–policy gap exists in relation to food and discussed the range of urgent and persistent failings of our current food systems.

What do we know?

We know that livestock production has a range of negative environmental impacts. These include:

  • biodiversity loss
  • surface soil loss
  • salinity
  • pollution of waterways
  • eutrophication of seas.

We know that livestock products, and in particular dairy, have a high virtual water content. We also know that we live in the world’s driest continent and are likely to face future droughts and increased stress on water supplies into the future.

We know that the livestock sector globally is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions leading to dangerous climate change. This is despite the recent findings that the Australian northern cattle herd emit 30% less methane than previously thought.

Processes in the food and agriculture system that lead to greenhouse gas emissions and population health outcomes (click for larger image). Friel S et al, The Lancet 374(9706)

We know that phosphorus scarcity presents a considerable threat to our food security and that producing meat products require 10 times more phosphorus than is required to produce vegetable-based products.

We know that overfishing is leading to extreme pressures on marine ecosystems. And we know that fishstocks worldwide are over-exploited or depleted, requiring urgent reductions in fishing if there is to be any chance of recovery.

At the same time, we now know that well-planned plant-based diets, including vegan diets, are healthy and nutritionally sound at all stages of the lifecycle. We also know that replacing meat with more plant foods helps prevent diet related diseases such as cancer, obesity and heart disease.

Despite all that we know, oddly, the Australian government continues to invest in and provide support for our unsustainable livestock industries.

And we continue to have the pervasive presence of meat, dairy and fish in our nutrition guidelines.

It would be safe to say that an evidence–policy gap is indeed occurring.

But isn’t it all too hard?

Public discussion of sustainable diets is often plagued by an underlying belief and expectation that plant-based diets are too difficult to achieve. There’s an idea that transitioning as a nation to a new dietary and food regime is likely impossible.

This is akin to giving up before trying.

Isn’t it rather too convenient to assume that social change is just too hard? Our high levels of meat and dairy consumption are recent historical facts, which suggests otherwise.

We don’t actually need meat to live, or even to thrive. Lola Lollipop

But this defeatist attitude is no surprise really, given that Australians are bombarded consistently with messages telling them to eat more meat. Australians are told that eating meat is patriotic, essential for masculinity, leads to more sex, gets you “ready for anything” and is an “amazing food”.

The meat industry and their spokespeople hoodwink us into believing that eating less meat won’t have any environmental benefit and is not worth bothering with.

Likewise, Australians are told that drinking milk keeps us fit and healthy, is full of “goodness” and supports Australian families.

Dairy marketing messages are part of larger “demand enhancement” efforts which involve targeting “health and nutrition drivers” to maintain economic benefits for the dairy industry.

Social scientists will you please come to the table

Food and eating is gendered, classed, political and personal. Suggestions to try meat-free, vegetarian or vegan diets can be perceived as controversial or even threatening. For many people meat and dairy foods have strong cultural and symbolic meaning.

The human being is commonly understood to be biologically omnivorous but this is stretched and culturally mediated into a social norm which demands that we must eat meat.

For these reasons, social scientists – as specialists in understanding practices and contesting social norms – are very well placed to contribute to finding solutions to this problem.

Social scientists might begin to ask: how can people change diets? What strategies, initiatives and government programs could be most effective? How can psychology and values studies inform us about how best to promote plant-based diets?

The stubborn refusal of vegans and vegetarians to simply drop dead from their supposedly impoverished diets inconveniently reminds us that levels of meat or dairy consumption are historical, cultural and economic trends rather than physiological needs.

Ask the vegans and vegetarians

Any vegan or vegetarian will tell you that they are constantly barraged with questions – from the mundane to the ridiculous. “Where do you get your iron?”, they’ll be asked; or “so do you just eat lettuce leaves?”

Defensive jokes about vegans and vegetarians abound.

Vegetarians are hilarious and delicious, but we could learn from them.

As amusing as it might be for some to poke fun at vegans and vegetarians, let’s pause for a minute and consider what vegans and others adopting plant-based diets can offer us in our search for solutions.

How was their transition? What helped them change their diets? What are their underlying values? What helps them maintain their new diet? What benefits are they experiencing? What additional skills are required to eat sustainably?

These are the questions we should be asking the vegans and vegetarians in our communities. They are a huge untapped knowledge source. This knowledge needs to be socially valued, explored and promoted.

Let’s start experimenting

Tim Lang wants us to “experiment” with alternative diets. And people all around the world have started doing just that.

A range of innovative initiatives are gaining popularity and interest. These include programs such as Meat Free Monday, London Vegan Pledge, Vegetarian Thursday in Belgium and Brussels, the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change’s “Meat Free Day”,’s VegPledge and many more.

And this month in Australia, more than 800 people have signed up to the Vegan Easy Challenge.

Participants in the Vegan Easy Challenge receive a welcome pack with guidance, shopping and menu tips, as well as the opportunity to take part in activities such as cooking demonstrations, a vegan shopping bus tour and a market day. Participants are supported through regular updates, recipes and inspiration via the Vegan Easy Challenge Facebook page. Participants are then encouraged to write up and share their experience with others.

These types of initiatives provide a perfect opportunity for us to learn about what may or may not work.

We know we need to change diets

Diets are not trivial. They are perhaps the main way in which we are embedded within and interact with our environment.

It should not be a surprise that the challenges of climate change and environmental sustainability require a change in value orientation to our relationship with nature. Technical tinkering with the efficiency levels of pre-existing modes of food production is inadequate to this challenge.

We know we need to change diets; let’s now have a conversation about how best to make the shift.

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