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Food| Food

New research shows that tilting menus toward plant-based meals reduces the amount of meat consumed.

Experiments in university cafeterias and at work showed that making it easier to choose meatless food can be successful. This approach could be more acceptable than some other proposals, like taxing meat or banning it from certain days.

Climate change is driven by climate change. Red meat, in particular, is linked to heart disease as well as other illnesses. To curb global warming and ill-health, rich countries must reduce their meat consumption by a substantial amount.

The new research Published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical ActivityThree separate experiments were conducted, including the first online scientific study of plant-based menu options. This sample included 2,200 UK adults. It found that 12% preferred the plant-based option when three of four meals options were meat-based. 48% chose the vegetarian meal when three of the four options were vegetarian. The results were the same regardless of whether participants were male or female, rich or poor.

Similar results were found at an Oxford University cafeteria. They had switched from a predominantly meat-based menu to one which was mainly plant-based. The study did not show any changes in other university cafeterias, even though meat consumption in the UK has fallen by 17% in 10 years.

The third experiment was done in workplace cafeterias. These include warehouses and factories. The sales data showed a 5% shift to plant-based meals at 10 sites. However, the analysis was more difficult because the menus varied across the sites.

It is urgent that we promote sustainable consumption in order to protect the planet. [and human]Rachel Pechey, from the University of Oxford, was the lead researcher in the study. It may be possible to change the availability of meat-free options. People are very sensitive to policies that target meat and hate taxes.

She said that we don’t want to tell anyone what to do. We do know that how we are shaped by our environment can impact our decisions. This can make sustainable choices easier for people.

Tim Lord, from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, stated that changes at the level suggested in the study could, if replicated across society, deliver the 20% reduction in meat-eating that is required by the UK’s Climate Change Committee by 2035.

He said that it is possible to make significant changes by focusing on the low-carbon option while still allowing those who wish to choose a higher-carbon option to do so. This illustrates a larger point about behaviour change, and net zero: making it easy for consumers is key. This is true for home decarbonisation just as it is for diet. Getting a heat pump is much more difficult than getting a boiler.

The government published a study in October on how behaviour change can reduce meat consumption and flying. However, it withdrew the report within hours.

Other studiesSimple environmental messages on menus can double the number of plant-based options. They can also be placed higher up on menus and described in a way that highlights their flavour rather than the absence of meat. Pechey and her colleagues are currently examining the effects of labelling the environmental footprint of meals on menus.

Pechey said that there are strong social and cultural norms surrounding meat-eating and that people tend to over-choose their meat choices. You might think that if you only have one vegetarian option on your menu, it is the one for vegetarians. If you offer more options, it could be perceived as a sign that these options will be in high demand and are things that people choose.

A government-commissioned food strategy published in 2021 called for big cuts in meat consumption, while a powerful coalition of the UKs health professions called in 2020 for a climate tax on food with a heavy environmental impact by 2025, unless the industry had taken voluntary action on the impact of its products.

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