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Meat campaign heats up


A global campaign encouraging people to give up meat on a Monday is gathering pace. Launched in 2003 in the US and now active in 34 countries, the Meatless Monday movement invokes the call by the US Food Administration during WWI for families to pledge to observe a “Meatless Monday” and “Wheatless Wednesday” to aid the war effort.

The costs to both health and the environment of excessive meat consumption are increasingly well publicised and any campaign aimed at reducing consumption is to be appluaded. But the ‘Meatless Monday’ concept is not without its flaws. When people pledge to give up something on a particular day there is a tendency for them to reward themselves by indulging even more on other days. Meatless Monday will not achieve its goal if people compensate by gorging on meat on Sunday and Tuesday. Furthermore, there is a danger that a campaign spearheaded in the UK by Sir Paul McCartney and the Government’s former climate minister Greg Barker will be viewed as smug and elitist and grate on everyday folk who don’t like being told what to eat, not least by celebrities and politicians.

Perhaps most compellingly, the campaign is rowing against a habit that is deeply embedded in British social norms. There is a strong cultural element to meat consumption, which defies rational arguments over health, cost and environment. Evidence suggests that most people believe a ‘proper’ meal must contain meat, particularly men for whom meat is linked with feelings of virility, strength and passion.

There is also a class element at play here. Meat has historically been viewed as an aspirational food and research by the likes of Mary Douglas and Anne Murcott has shown that even if a meat-free diet were shown to be more cost effective for low-income families, they are more inclined to adhere to convention and have the comfort of remaining a part of mainstream culture.

None of this is to denigrate the ‘Meatless Monday’ campaign, which is a welcome movement with a worthy aim. But it will take a profound societal transition to reduce meat consumption at a global level given meat’s historically high status in Western food culture, and expectations about what the campaign can deliver should be tinged with a realism that meat is likely to remain the focal point of the meal for many years to come.

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