In this post, MSc Psychology of Economic Life student Maxim Wloch explores the environmental impact of meat consumption and asks: If you had one shot or one opportunity to decrease your environmental footprint would you capture it or just let it slip?
I don’t want to convince anyone to stop eating meat. It’s your choice. What I do want is to make you aware that the food industry will not tell you what the impacts of eating meat are on the environment.
“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian” – Paul McCartney
When we eat meat today, we don’t know where it is coming from. We don’t know what the environmental impact of it is. We don’t know how the animal has been “harvested”, not to mention lived. The only thing we know is how much it costs, and let’s face it, it’s often cheap. It may even feel cheap. But we still buy it, although something gnaws at our conscience because we sense some underlying issue that we try to push away immediately. Because that’s annoying, just let me eat!
But let’s keep this thought for a moment. So what exactly is the issue with eating meat? Well, there are many. But let’s focus on the environmental impact of meat consumption and why the consumer is not to blame for buying it nevertheless.
What’s wrong with eating meat? It’s simply inefficient.
Due to the enormous emissions caused by meat production, a vegetarian diet can save up to 16% of the energy used and 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions produced per person (Grabs, 2015). Furthermore, meat production needs enormous amounts of water. In total, it accounts for up to 25% of humanity’s whole water consumption (Hoekstra, 2012). On the other hand, following a vegetarian diet effectively reduces 36% of an individual’s water footprint. When we continue eating meat as we do right now, it will be impossible to feed everyone in a growing world population. Our food and water systems will soon be overwhelmed. In fact, we eat so much meat that more than 80% of worldwide available farmland is used for meat production (Stokstad, 2010).
At the same time, meat contributes only to 15% of overall calorie intake. So meat is actually a pretty inefficient source of energy. Following these environmental impacts leaves meat as quite an unsustainable consumption choice and questions why we still buy it.
The price is right: Why the consumer is not to be blamed for eating unsustainable meat.
Meat is cheap, and low prices have contributed to increased meat consumption since 1950 in Western societies. When we listen to one of the fathers of our current economic system, Hayek, a commodity’s price gives all information a consumer needs. He wrote in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (1945) that the price substitutes “knowing anything at all about the original cause” (p. 526) of the product.
Ironically, whereas for Hayek, the price was the perfect solution to tackle our limited knowledge and cognition by summarising everything we need to know into a single quantified unit, focusing on the price actually leaves us utterly unknowledgeable about our consumption. It disempowers us. We become alienated from any underlying meat production process, which we would need to understand to make a considered choice about the meat we consume.
Contrary to what Hayek wished, focusing on the price eliminates consumer freedom, and leads to disempowerment and sustained nescience. Our freedom is taken away from us by not giving us the chance to even know what we are buying. So while our current economic system follows Hayek’s price-is-all-we-need-to-know principle, the outcome is not a fair account of our limited knowledge but a trap for our freedom.
The price is not enough, okay. But now what?
“There has never been a time when it is more crucial for us to carefully consider where our food is coming from and how it was grown, raised, and harvested” – Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall is trying to emphasise in her book “Harvest for Hope” that we actually urgently need to know where the meat is coming from, what the environmental impact of it is, how the animal has been “harvested” and has lived. What we need is an antagonist towards puristic price-only information. This antagonist is called education.
Seed education to harvest sustainability.
Education is the key to reach sustainable food consumption. With its bottom-up approach, education defetishises our food system by empowering consumers with the knowledge they need to understand the underlying processes of meat consumption. Only with such knowledge consumers can make a well-informed, conscious food choice. As the information we receive is limited to the price, sustainable food consumption is only possible with actual knowledge about what is sustainable. This makes education the fundamental factor towards evolution to sustainability in food consumption.
The success of food trends like the slow-food movement, Fairtrade and green consumerism already underlines consumers’ motivation to understand the processes behind their consumption (Allen & Kovach, 2000; Binkley, 2008; Peattie & Samuel, 2018).
Meat consumption really is an excellent example of what is wrong with our current economic system. Relying on price-only information in food consumption leaves us utterly unknowledgeable and helpless. Education establishes the equilibrium of sustainability and our consumption by empowering us with knowledge. This knowledge enables us to make sustainable food choices which may propagate into less meat consumption.
- The views expressed in this post are of the author and not the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science or London School of Economic and Political Science (LSE).
- Featured Photo by Olga Kravchuk on Unsplash
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