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 fries, tangerines and this thing that looked like chili but no meat – just beans,” said the 12-year-old after lunch on a Friday at IS 318 Eugenio Maria De Hostos.
The Monday and Friday meals have inspired the Preston family to make more vegetarian meals at home, sparking what experts say is a healthy change for them — and for the planet.
Programs like these are among the few tried to work for one of the most thorny problems of the XXI century: How to make people eat less meat.
EDITORS’ NOTE – This story is part of The Protein Problem, an AP series that examines the question: Can we feed this growing world without starving the planet?
A new poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that most American adults said they eat meat at least several times a week. About two-thirds (64%) say 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 call for a review of how humans get their protein.
“There has arguably never been a more important time in human history to transform our food system for humans and nature,” a coalition of UK climate scientists concluded in a 2020 analysis.
That should change the behavior of consumers around meat, especially in rich countries, experts said. From a health perspective, people in places like the United States, Canada, and Europe eat far more meat, especially red meat and processed meat, than is recommended. That puts them at risk for obesity, heart disease, stroke and other problems that affect wealthy nations.
Scientists say the average US adult consumes about 100 grams of protein, mostly meat, every day — about twice the recommended amount. That adds up to more than 328 pounds of meat per person each year, including 58 pounds of poultry, 37 pounds of beef, 30 pounds of pork and 22 pounds of fish and seafood, according to the Food and Drug Administration. and the United Nations Agriculture.
At the same time, meat production is a key driver of climate change. The livestock sector is responsible for at least 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is the largest source of methane, a major threat to the Earth’s climate, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
There is no doubt that reducing meat consumption could have real and lasting effects.
Oxford University researchers recently reported that vegans have 30% the dietary environmental impact of people who eat high amounts of meat. Vegans produce 25% of greenhouse gas emissions and land use impact, 46% of water use, 27% of water pollution and 34% of the impact on biodiversity than the first meats.
Significantly, even low-meat diets contribute only about 70% of the environmental impact of high-meat diets, wrote Keren Papier, co-author of the study.
“You don’t have to go full vegan or even vegetarian to make a big difference,” Papier said.
Young people could be key. They may be open to new ways of eating because they are more aware of climate change and the environmental costs of our current eating patterns, said Dr. Martin Bloem, professor of environmental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
But he is worried about the pace of change: “I think it’s going too slowly.”
Changing human behavior, especially regarding something as important and intimate as the food we eat, is challenging, no matter how old a person is.
Eating meat is an ingrained and habitual part of everyday life in most of the world, said Julia Wolfson, who studies nutrition at Johns Hopkins University. Meat consumption is “orders of magnitude higher” in the United States than in low-income countries, and meals are often centered around it. He recalled a well-known ad from the mid-1990s that resonated across the country: “Beef: That’s what’s for dinner.”
In addition to its central role in the United States and other cultures, there are strong perceptions that meat is necessary, especially for “boys to grow up healthy and strong,” he said.
At the same time, research shows that most people are reluctant to learn even about the negative impacts of eating meat and are disadvantaged by the so-called “meat paradox”. It is the term that scientists use to describe the psychological conflict that occurs in people who like to eat meat, but do not like to contemplate animals that have died.
The AP-NORC survey illustrates this conundrum.
About 8 in 10 US adults said that taste was an extremely or very important factor when buying food, with its cost and nutritional value following close behind. Americans are much less likely to prioritize food’s effect on the environment (34%) or its effect on animal welfare (30%).
Despite those obstacles, some interventions can reduce meat consumption, research shows.
Emphasizing the connection between meat and animals seems to work. For example, experiments that showed photos of meat dishes on restaurant menus next to images of the animals they came with consistently showed to reduce meat consumption, according to researchers at Stanford University.
Another strategy is to emphasize animal welfare. Research subjects exposed to information about this are more likely than control groups to buy or eat less meat or to say that they intended to eat less meat, studies show.
Interventions described as “nudges”, or small choices aimed at influencing behaviour, appear to be among the most effective in reducing meat consumption. Many are designed to help you make more convenient healthy choices.
They can be as simple as reducing the size of meat portions and increasing the number of vegetables at home and in restaurants. Or they can involve the positioning of vegetarian offers more prominently in shops and buffets. In a 2021 study in the Journal of Public Health, vegetarian choices increased from 2% to nearly 90% when researchers made meatless meals the default option on conference menus.
Some nations are considering more drastic measures. In the Netherlands, the minister of agriculture has proposed the introduction of a tax on meat, an idea that is still under discussion. The city of Haarlem, outside Amsterdam, will ban the advertising of “processed meat” in public spaces starting in 2025.
These options will not fare well in the United States, according to the AP-NORC poll. About 7 in 10 American adults say they somewhat or strongly oppose raising sales taxes on meat and 43% oppose banning public advertising for meat on to government property.
Meanwhile, meatless meal days are becoming more common, with Meatless Monday programs taking root around the world.
“Meatless Monday has been very successful in raising awareness and starting a conversation about just the small changes that one can make that don’t seem overwhelming to people,” Wolfson said.
He seems to be working at Preston Cabral’s school. Ricardo Morales, a coconut ambassador, said more children take lunch at school on Friday than any other day of the week.
“Vegan Day is just the biggest day we serve right now,” he said. “It’s bigger than hamburgers and even bigger than pizza day.”
The poll of 1,247 adults was conducted Feb. 16-20 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the US population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
The Department of Health and Science of the Associated Press receives support from the Science and Media Education Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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