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The surprising cultural drivers of our appetite for meat

Religion, women's economic empowerment, and globalisation are just a few factors that have an unexpected effect on how much meat we eat, a new study finds.
October 18, 2019

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Income and cost aren’t the only factors that decide how much meat a population consumes. Instead, several more unexpected features – like women’s presence in the workforce, globalization, and religion—have a considerable role in shaping the global diet, too.

These are the surprising findings of a new study published in the journal Appetite, which proposes that if we’re going to make our global eating habits more sustainable, we need to take these more subtle and overlooked factors into account.

The study, led by Norwegian researchers, examined three major drivers—economic, natural, and social—of meat consumption in 137 countries. Economic drivers had a predictable effect. They found that for every $1000 increase in income per capita globally, there was an associated 1.6 kilogram increase in the amount of meat consumed by the average person each year. On the other hand, if meat doubles in price, relative to other food items, it leads to a startling 17.8 kilogram dip in meat consumption per person, per year.

But the researchers also wanted to explore more unexpected drivers, “in order to better predict future meat consumption, and to identify possible instruments which may curb it,” says Anna Milford, the study’s lead researcher, and a research scientist at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research. She and her team found that populations who live at higher, cooler latitudes, were found to eat 13.1 kilograms less meat every year—especially of ruminant meat products like beef —compared to those who live in more temperate zones. This is likely because rearing livestock requires an abundance of grain that doesn’t grow so well in cooler climes, making meat less immediately available, or more expensive in these regions. 

This also underscored the fact that demand doesn’t necessarily drive production; instead, production levels seem to wield a greater influence on people’s diets than their appetites alone.

Looking at social factors, the researchers found that high rates of urbanization were one of the most influential forces driving increased meat consumption, alongside cost and income. Religion wielded an influence as well: the share of a population that was Muslim had a profound effect on meat consumption—leading to a decline on account of religious limitations around consuming certain types of meat. And, perhaps most interestingly, the more women there were in the workforce, the more likely a population was to consume more meat. 

The researchers think that urbanization and women’s economic empowerment have this notable effect, because they fuel a culture of convenience around food and cooking. That lays the path for more meat consumption: “The hypothesis is that families where both parents work have an increased need for convenience food, which is quick to prepare, and meat falls into this category,” Milford says.

Surprisingly, when the researchers measured the effects of globalization on meat consumption, they found that economic globalization—for example, increased trade—actually decreases meat consumption. But social globalization—interactions with people from other countries—conversely drove it up.

Typically, analyses around meat consumption focus on economic drivers alone. But that risks overlooking the role of other subtler factors the researchers explore in the current study. And by revealing these other influences, the study highlights some unexplored avenues for change. 

For instance, tapping into people’s desire for convenience—especially with an increasingly urbanized population and female-inclusive workforce—could go a long way to changing the way that these influential populations eat. “This means that increased availability of plant based, meat-replacing convenience food, could be a measure for reduced meat consumption,” Milford explains, as one example. 

Similarly, the clear influence of social globalization means that it should be possible to “create a culture focussing more on plant-based food, which can also be spread to other countries through globalization,” she adds.

Considering that between 1961 and 2011, meat consumption per capita grew by 75%—with huge ramifications for the planet—these could all be crucial clues towards solving this major challenge of our times.

Source: Milford et. al. “Drivers of meat consumption.” Appetite. 2019.
Image: erratic0101

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