Promoting plant-based meals? Don’t forget the 80%

The two most impactful ways of reducing the footprint of our food are: reducing food waste along the whole food production and consumption chain; and consuming fewer animal products, writes Annette Burgard. In two quick statistics: agriculture is responsible for 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions; about 40% of all land on earth is used for agriculture.

Cutting back on food waste and animal products both have the same effect: we can produce less food overall and therefore shrink the footprint of the food industry. With waste it’s obvious why; with animal products, a little bit less so, but it’s down to inefficiency.

Only about 30% of the calories we feed animals get converted into edible products (meat, milk, eggs). Environmentally speaking, the reason that reducing animal product consumption is a good thing, is that it helps us reduce the overall size of the food industry. So, it would be really helpful if more people chose to eat less meat.

So, why are we not making it a lot easier for everyone to do so?

When we speak about vegetarian or plant-based food, we tend to focus on about 20% of the population, and more or less ignore the other 80%. Let me explain.

Roughly 10% of the population in Europe and the US is vegetarian, vegan, or flexitarian and eating meat very rarely. These numbers vary by country and fluctuate, but 10% is a good enough approximation for this purpose.

In a survey we ran two years ago, about 12% of respondents identified as “meat lovers” who cannot be satisfied with a meal unless it contains a substantial amount of meat. For the sake of argument, let’s assume this number is also about 10%. (Side note: 100% of respondents who gave this answer were men in their 20s and early 30s).

So if we have 10% on both “extreme” ends, what about the other 80%?

They usually pick food based on taste and price. They may or may not be aware of environmental or health benefits of their dietary choices. If they are aware, the knowledge doesn’t trigger significant behaviour change. They don’t have very strong views about their food and therefore don’t shout on Instagram and don’t make a fuss at restaurants. They are neither really pro- nor anti- veganism. They just live their lives.

As it happens, for these 80% nudging makes an enormous difference. They aren’t offended by it, because they just choose what they fancy in any particular moment. For the 80% choosing food is all about context.

So, if there are 10 meat dishes and one veggie, they’ll probably order meat. If veggie dishes sit in a separate menu section, they’ll probably order meat. If they don’t know what it is, they won’t order it. If a veggie dish is called “Vegetarian Lasagne” while the alternative is called “Mum’s Mouthwatering Lasagne”, they’ll order the meat version.

You get the idea.

Annette Burgard is founder of More Than Carrots. This blog is based on a talk she gave at the “Food on the Move” conference in London.

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