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Saving the Planet, One Meal at a Time

Few people grasp the connection between meat consumption and climate change.
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(Photo: Taryn/Flickr)

(Photo: Taryn/Flickr)

Whatever the results of the current talks in Paris, combating climate change will require individuals—especially in wealthy countries like the United States—to make changes to their day-to-day routines. That means re-adjusting the thermostat to use less energy, or keeping the car in the garage and taking the bus to work.

Those are fine ideas, but if you're like most people, another enormously beneficial behavioral shift has probably never crossed your mind: curbing your inner carnivore.

In a study of consumers in the U.S. and the Netherlands, participants "were largely unaware of the outstanding effectiveness of addressing climate change through eating less meat," writes a research team led by Joop de Boer of the Institute for Environmental Studies at VU Amsterdam.

The good news is "willingness to adopt the less-meat option increased with its perceived effectiveness," the researchers write in the journal Appetite. These findings, they add, "provide policymakers with a justification for actively informing the public" about the environmental benefits of a diet that is light on burgers, roasts, and chops.

With so much at stake, you can give up that steak.

The study featured 556 American and 527 Dutch citizens, who were asked a series of questions about food, energy, and the environment. These included "How many days a week do you eat meat (including chicken) with your main meal?"

Participants then read a list of six activities, and indicated whether they considered each an effective way of combating climate change. "Eat less meat," "Buy local, seasonal, unprocessed foods," "Buy organic foods," "Drive less," "Save energy at home (e.g., turning thermostats down)," and "Install solar panels on my home" were all evaluated on a scale of "not effective at all" to "highly effective."

Finally, participants went over those six options once again and indicated how willing they were to make that particular lifestyle change.

The key result: Only 12 percent of the Dutch, and six percent of the Americans, correctly identified lower meat consumption as a highly effective way of lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Eating less meat came in last among the six options in the American sample, and second from the bottom among the Dutch.

"In both countries ... the willingness to eat less meat increased with the option's perceived effectiveness," the researchers add. This suggests spreading the word about its environmental benefits could, over time, shift eating patterns in a positive way.

The researchers caution that "individuals and households are not inclined to change the course of their behavior too easily or too often." An eat-less-meat marketing campaign probably won't lead to immediate adjustments in eating habits. But it would put the value of that dietary option in people's minds, making them more open to the idea when they decide it's time to make a change.

This is good news for those who want to take action to save the planet, but don't know where to begin. It turns out one answer is the dinner table.

With so much at stake, you can give up that steak.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.