Brock research examines messaging to encourage less red meat consumption

With the beef industry acting as a major contributor to greenhouse gasses, Brock University researchers are examining what can be done to cut down on the consumption of red meat by Canadians.

Brock food scientist Gary Pickering and graduate student Samantha Stea are examining what type of messaging works to encourage people to either lessen their red meat consumption or stop eating it all together.

The duo asked 593 red-meat eaters from across Canada why they eat beef, pork, lamb and other red meat, as well as how much they know about the environmental impacts of red meat farming.

“Taste and quality are the most important motivators when it comes to consuming red meat,” says Stea, who recently completed a Master of Sustainability degree.

Interestingly, the fourth-highest motivation for eating red meat was for health reasons, going against “traditional wisdom” that consuming too much red meat is actually bad for human health, says Pickering, a Professor of Biological Sciences and Psychology, as well as in Brock’s Environmental Sustainability Research Centre.

“Concerns around the ethics and morality of eating red meat were very low,” he says.

Participants read a list of 13 environmental impacts — including global warming, deforestation, overuse of land, acid rain, soil contamination and others — and ticked off those they thought were associated with red meat consumption.

Pickering and Stea then presented the red meat eaters with one of six message types that contained information about the environmental impacts of red meat production.

The first type was a simple control: a factual statement of several negative environmental impacts of red meat production such as “The amount of corn and grain needed to feed one cow could feed 10 to 15 people.”

The second and third version of the statements contained subtle variations that framed the facts in different ways. For instance, the “Canadian place identity” frame changed the earlier sentence to “In Canada, the amount of corn and grain needed to feed one cow could feed 10 to 15 people.”

The “social norm” frame added, “People are making dietary choices to reflect their feelings towards these impacts,” while other messages contained combinations of the place identity and social norm frames.

The researchers then asked participants several questions about their intended future red meat consumption.

Almost half of the participants said they would reduce their red meat consumption after reading the control statement. The social norm statement also motivated participants to say they intended to eat less red meat. Place identity had no impact on changes in future consumption.

Participants also re-read the list of 13 environmental impacts and once again ticked off those they thought were associated with red meat consumption. In all 13 categories, the red meat eaters’ knowledge and awareness of the environmental impacts of red meat farming increased.

The researchers say several important lessons can be drawn from their study, “Optimizing Messaging to Reduce Red Meat Consumption,” which was published earlier this year in the journal Environmental Communication, and won the Best Paper Award at the International Conference on Food and Agriculture Technologies in Bali, Indonesia last year.

Stea says the results paint a hopeful picture of what can be done to protect the environment.

“It can be easy and simple to incorporate eco-friendly ideals and choices into our day-to-day lives,” she says. For example, by thinking about how we can make slight adjustments to our diet, like eating red meat less often, we can help reduce the environmental impacts created by the red meat industry.

Many studies have outlined the severe environmental impacts of red meat farming that contribute to climate change, such as significant methane emissions, the global warming impact of nitrogen in fertilizers and manure, deforestation for pasture, and the huge water requirements used in farming.

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