NEW YORK (AP) — Preston Cabral eats meat almost every day at home, but his favorite meals at school are served on “Meatless Mondays” and “Vegan Fridays.”
“Today I ate chips, tangerines and this thing that looked like chili but without meat – just beans,” said the 12-year-old Eugenio Maria De Hostos after lunch on a Friday at IS 318.
The Monday and Friday lunches inspired Preston’s family to prepare more vegetarian meals at home, sparking a healthy change for them – and for the planet, experts say.
Programs like these are among the few proven to solve one of the thorniest problems of the 21st century: how to get people to eat less meat.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story is part of The Protein Problem, an AP series that explores the question: Can we feed this growing world without starving the planet?
A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that most U.S. adults said they eat meat at least several times a week. About two-thirds (64%) said they eat chicken or turkey that often, and 43% eat beef that often.
But experts agree that the urgency of climate change and the demands of a growing global population require an overhaul in the way people get their protein.
“There has arguably never been a more important time in human history to transform our food system for the benefit of people and nature,” a coalition of British climate scientists concluded in a 2020 analysis.
This requires changing consumer behavior around meat, especially in rich countries, experts say. From a health perspective, people in countries such as the US, Canada and Europe eat far more meat, particularly red meat and processed meat, than recommended. This puts them at risk of obesity, heart disease, strokes and other problems that afflict wealthy nations.
Scientists say the average U.S. adult consumes about 100 grams of protein, mostly meat, daily — about twice the recommended amount. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, that’s more than 328 pounds of meat per person per year, including 58 pounds of poultry, 37 pounds of beef, 30 pounds of pork and 22 pounds of fish and seafood.
At the same time, meat production is a key driver of climate change. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association, livestock is responsible for at least 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is the largest source of methane, a major threat to Earth’s climate.
There’s no question that reducing meat consumption could have real and lasting impacts.
Researchers at the University of Oxford recently reported that vegans have 30% of the dietary environmental impact of people who eat a lot of meat. Vegans accounted for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions and land use impacts, 46% of water use, 27% of water pollution and 34% of biodiversity impacts than the biggest meat eaters.
Significantly, even low-meat diets only contributed about 70% of the environmental impact of high-meat diets, wrote Keren Papier, co-author of the study.
“You don’t have to go completely vegan or even vegetarian to make a big difference,” Papier said.
Younger people could be the key. They may be open to new eating habits because they are more aware of climate change and the environmental costs of our current eating habits, Dr. Martin Bloem, professor of environmental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
But the pace of change worries him: “I think it’s going too slowly.”
Changing human behavior, especially when it comes to something as important and intimate as the food we eat, is challenging regardless of a person’s age.
“Eating meat is a regular, habitual part of daily life in most parts of the world,” said Julia Wolfson, who studies nutrition at Johns Hopkins University. Meat consumption in the U.S. is “orders of magnitude higher” than in low-income countries, and meals often center around it. She recalled a well-known ad from the mid-1990s that resonated across the country: “Beef: There’s What’s For Dinner.”
Aside from its central role in the U.S. and other cultures, there are strong beliefs that meat is necessary, especially for “little boys to grow up healthy and strong,” she said.
At the same time, research shows that most people are reluctant to even learn about the negative effects of eating meat and are hindered by what is known as the “meat paradox.” Scientists use this term to describe the psychological conflict that occurs in people who like to eat meat but do not like to think about the animals that died while providing meat.
The AP-NORC poll illustrates this conundrum.
About 8 in 10 U.S. adults said taste was an extremely or very important factor when purchasing food, followed by cost and nutritional value. Americans are much less likely to care about food’s impact on the environment (34%) or animal welfare (30%).
Despite these hurdles, certain measures can reduce meat consumption, research shows.
Emphasizing the connection between meat and animals seems to be working. For example, according to researchers at Stanford University, experiments in which photos of meat dishes were displayed on restaurant menus next to images of the animals from which they came consistently reduced meat consumption.
Another strategy is to focus on animal welfare. Studies show that research participants who receive information about this are more likely than control groups to buy or eat less meat, or to say they intend to eat less meat.
Interventions described as “nudges,” or small decisions to influence behavior, appear to be among the most effective measures to reduce meat consumption. Many are designed to help make healthy choices more convenient.
They can be as simple as reducing meat portions and increasing vegetables at home and in restaurants. Or it’s about positioning vegetarian offerings more strongly in grocery stores and buffets. In a 2021 study in the Journal of Public Health, vegetarian meals rose from just 2% to nearly 90% when researchers made meatless meals the standard option on conference menus.
Some countries are considering more drastic measures. In the Netherlands, the agriculture minister proposed introducing a meat tax, an idea that is still being debated. The city of Haarlem, outside Amsterdam, will ban the advertising of “industrial meat” in public spaces from 2025.
According to the AP-NORC poll, these options would not be well received in the United States. About 7 in 10 U.S. adults said they would somewhat or strongly oppose an increase in taxes on the sale of meat, and 43% would oppose a ban on public advertising of meat on government property.
Meat-free menu days are now becoming more and more common and “Meatless Monday” programs are becoming established around the world.
“Meatless Monday has had a lot of success in raising awareness and starting a conversation about small changes you can make so it doesn’t seem overwhelming to people,” Wolfson said.
It seems to be working at Preston Cabral’s school. Ricardo Morales, a cooking ambassador, said more children get school lunches on Fridays than any other day of the week.
“Vegan Day is simply the biggest day we offer right now,” he said. “It’s bigger than hamburgers and even pizza day.”
The survey of 1,247 adults was conducted Feb. 16-20 using a sample from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The sampling error rate for all respondents is plus/minus 3.7 percentage points.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Science and Educational Media Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.