We should eat less beef

If we are to make sure that everyone has enough to eat in the future, we should review our eating habits. Our high consumption of meat, especially beef, has a significant environmental impact and puts pressure on the world’s food resources. But it is not easy to get people to buy fewer burgers and consume less red meat. We need a lot of different initiatives in order to make significant changes, says Professor of economic psychology John Thøgersen.

2013.12.19 | Ida Hammerrich

When you eat a steak, it has a significant impact on the environment – even more so than when you eat a meatball. Beef has a 3-4 times higher environmental impact compared to pork or chicken, so if we could manage to eat less beef, we would be able to make a real difference in terms of the environment. It would be a way to secure sustainable food production in the future.

But we cannot change the consumers’ food habits overnight. These are the words of John Thøgersen, who is professor of economic psychology and conducts research on consumer behaviour.

“When dealing with something as complex as a collective change of diet, it is important to realise that there is not one single solution. But it is possible to influence people to make more eco-friendly choices; for instance, through enlightenment campaigns, education and by introducing taxes on foodstuffs,” he explains.

Education rather than campaigns
Research suggests that well-educated people are more inclined to make sensible choices, also in terms of diet. Thus, it is important to educate the population on the different different types of meat and the impact that these foods have on the environment. And according to John Thøgersen, this knowledge should be acquired as early as possible – children should learn about it in school.

“It’s about making young people aware of the consequences of their everyday choices and the effect that their behaviour has on the global environment – without there being guilt and shame involved. Everyone just needs to understand the correlation. After all, today most children know that they shouldn’t leave the tap running while brushing their teeth,” he says.

However, John Thøgersen does not believe that national campaigns with the purpose of getting people to eat less beef and meat in general will have a great effect.

“We don’t have very good experiences with these types of campaigns that are aimed at getting people to change their habits. The ‘six a day’ campaign, which was meant to get people to eat more fruit and vegetables, seems to have had some impact – but this campaign draws on positive health arguments, which no one can object to. On the contrary, campaigns to eat less meat will be hotly debated and meet resistance from many sides, not least from the food industry,” he explains.

John Thøgersen believes that we should proceed with the campaigns that promote food and vegetables, because when we eat more fruit and vegetables, there is less room for meat.

Taxes are effective
It is likely that part of the problem with high meat consumption will resolve itself along the way. In the future, food prices will rise, and then people will be less inclined to buy the more expensive foodstuffs, including meat. This development can be helped along by reconsidering the distribution of taxes.

“One option would be to introduce a differentiated sales tax, so that unhealthy foods will be subject to higher sales taxes than the more healthy foods. Completely removing the sales tax on fruit and vegetables would be another way to go. It would be a way to help the market mechanism get started, and it would be a much more efficient approach,” says John Thøgersen.
The population’s dietary habits change slowly over time. But it is possible to change them.

“The Danes’ dietary habits have changed a lot in the last 50 years, because we have become more international. And now the Nordic kitchen is gaining a foothold as well. People’s dietary habits can indeed be changed, but it doesn’t happen overnight.”

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