Are you part of generation moderation?
New research forecasts that a significant proportion of the population is likely to be actively moderating its meat consumption over the next decade. Martin Thomas assesses the trends, opportunities and challenges that will impact on our shifting food culture.
Meat consumption in the UK is set to decline over the next decade. This is the conclusion of a social trends study we undertook as part of World Meat Free Day 2016. The study was based on an analysis of the prevailing socio-economic and cultural trends influencing people’s attitudes to sustainability and food, plus the results of a major opinion poll which examined public perceptions of optimised eating behaviour, eco-priorities and the cultural positioning of meat. The results were recently published in a report: ‘We will live as we will eat: Anticipating the future power of sustainability and our shifting food culture’.
The key trend we identified in our study was the ‘irresistibility of moderation’: the idea that all forms of excessive consumption are becoming less socially acceptable. Sobriety is cool for a group who we labeled ‘Generation Moderation’: for example, a third of people in London are now teetotal. Our research suggests that this culture of moderation is already shaping people’s attitudes to meat, with a third of the population claiming that they are actively choosing to eat less meat and 40% that they are eating less meat than they used to. They tend to be female, married, spread across the age groups (except the over-65s), predominantly middle-class, more common in the South East / London and less common in Scotland and the North. Although, even amongst the stereotypically carnivorous we appear to be witnessing a change in attitudes: for example, 37% of 16-24 year old males agree that ‘eating red meat is bad for you’.
In addition to an culture of moderation, a number of other trends appear likely to encourage an overall reduction in meat consumption over the next decade, including the growing popularity of cuisines which are less heavily meat dependent (such as Middle Eastern food), better quality information from government and food groups - making it easier for people to make smarter food choices - and the use of mobile technology to arm people with the real-time information to make personal decisions about the food that they buy and eat.
We can therefore forecast with some confidence that a significant proportion of the population is likely to be actively moderating its meat consumption over the next decade. This forecast is borne-out by our polling results, with 22% of adults claiming that by 2025 ‘my diet will probably be mostly meat-free’ and 29% that ‘I will probably be eating less meat’. A food culture that, since the end of rationing in the 1950s, has associated a plentiful supply of meat with ‘the good life’ appears to be finally changing.
We also predict that excessive meat consumption will increasingly attract social disapproval in some quarters. Our research indicated an emerging sensitivity towards meat-eating excess, with 37% of 16-24 year old women wishing that their partner would’ eat less processed meat’ and a third of adults believing that ‘by 2025 good parents will generally not give hamburgers or sausages to their children.’ Given how social disapproval can be a potent force in changing behavior, these figures are significant.
The big challenge identified in our research – and the key priority for the food sustainability movement - was that when presented with a list of individual eco-actions actions relatively few UK adults (fewer than 10%) chose ‘eating less meat’. This figure was significantly lower than a wide range of other actions: for example, almost three times as many people selected ‘turning off the tap when brushing your teeth’. It was all the more surprising given that the research also revealed that a third of the adult population claimed to recognise the environmental harms caused by meat production and a majority agreed that ‘there is more I could do personally to help protect the environment’.
The burden of responsibility for encouraging a more sustainable food culture is thought to fall more emphatically on supermarkets, celebrities and government than on individuals. The UK public clearly still requires some persuading to eat less meat for the sake of the planet. Closing this gap between the public’s declared understanding of the environmental harms linked to industrialised meat production and its willingness to eat less meat for the sake of the planet will be the single, most important challenge for the pro-sustainability movement.
This is not a simple task. Another of the key trends we identified in our research was the risk of ‘responsibility overload’. With so many competing instructions to change our behavior – eat more healthily, take more exercise, reduce sugar, cut back on salt, drink less etc. - will sustainability messages cut-through? We also know from the experience of the last recession that pressure on household budgets can inhibit people’s willingness to pay what is often a premium for more sustainable products. An economic recession – maybe even catalyzed by BREXIT – could undermine efforts to convince the wider public to prioritise sustainability when making their food choices.
Encouraging more sustainable eating behaviour will require the delivery of continuous, compelling and consistent messages to the public. This is partly about dramatising the dangers of excessive meat consumption but mainly about how moderation is both easy and increasingly fashionable. It cannot be made to feel too difficult, too extreme, too worthy or too boring. The success of Meat Free Monday - which has become a global consumer movement – and the growing popularity of World Meat Free Day show what the spirit of collective sacrifice can achieve.
Parents are an obvious target for pro-sustainably campaigns. Our research shows that parents of school-aged children are consistently more sensitive to environmental and health issues than the wider population. There was an overwhelming acceptance of the use of school educational programmes: 91% of the people we surveyed support idea that ‘Children should be taught to know which foods do damage, by the way they are produced, to the environment’.
Finally, a significant proportion of the British public appears willing to support the use of taxation to shape out food choices. In our research 40% agree that ‘unhealthy foods should be heavily taxed’ and significant percentage of the population appears receptive to the idea of taxes on fast food, take-away meals and processed meat.
The government may not be in any great rush to impose taxes on meat, but overall our trends reports paints a pretty positive picture when it comes to the emergence of a more sustainable food culture in the UK. Moderation is already the new normal and is set to become a dominant trend for the decade to come. If the sustainability movement can jump on this bandwagon, the benefits for our health and that of the planet will be significant.
You can download a copy of Dissident's futures report - ‘We will live as we will eat: Anticipating the future power of sustainability and our shifting food culture’ – via this link.