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People Will Stop Eating Meat for the Planet’s Health If Not Their Own

Want to reduce meat consumption? Be direct with the climate pitch.

Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

When I was a teen in the late aughts, the Washington Department of Health inflicted permanent damage to my psyche by airing intensely nightmarish anti-smoking commercials late at night on Adult Swim. (No really, you’ve been warned). The fact that a maggoty stop-motion sewer rat still flashes into my head when I think about smoking is a testament to the power of graphic visual dissuasion — even as the U.S. continues to use text-heavy warning labels on cigarette packs compared to the disturbing photographic labels affixed by most other countries.

In a new paper published in the journal Appetite on Wednesday, researchers at Durham University in the U.K. found evidence that graphic warning labels might be able to dissuade meat-eating, too. Taking inspiration from cigarette packets, the researchers created warning labels focused on the environment, health, or pandemic impacts of meat. The labels decreased a diner’s inclination to choose animal protein by up to 10%.

There are lots of good reasons for policymakers to discourage meat-eating: Red meat in particular has been linked to health risks like increased mortality; factory farming is a known pandemic catalyst; and a reduction of animal agriculture is likely necessary to meet national net-zero climate goals. But while it isn’t terribly surprising that a graphic warning label can ruin your appetite, what is curious is that diners appeared slightly more receptive to labels that warned about climate consequences than ones with health or pandemic warnings.

The researchers found that pandemic-focused labels reduced meat meal choices by 10%, health warning labels by 8.8%, and climate labels by 7.4%, but described this spread as not being statistically significant. Things got interesting, though, when researchers asked their subjects if they would support a policy that affixed such warnings to meat products; in that case, “support for the introduction of climate warning labels was significantly higher than support for the introduction of pandemic warning labels,” and higher, though “not significantly different to,” introducing health warning labels. This finding tracked with a pilot study in which the researchers had found “participants considered the impact of meat consumption on climate change as most consequential when compared to the impact on human health and future risk of pandemics.”

Also of note: Respondents found climate warning labels a little more believable than pandemic or health labels. Asked to rank the labels’ claims by credibility from 1 to 7, with 1 being the least credible, respondents gave climate an average of 4.85, followed by 4.3 for health and 3.69 for the pandemic. Admittedly, 4.85 is not exactly an overwhelming vouch of credibility; it means respondents were slightly more inclined to “agree” than “neither agree nor disagree.”

Overall, policy support was lackluster too, “with participants neither supporting nor opposing the introduction of climate warning labels, but opposing the introduction of health and pandemic warning labels,” the researchers wrote. Additionally, the subjects of the study were based in the U.K., where the belief that climate change is a major threat is about 7 points higher than in the U.S.; the researchers admitted these pre-existing environmental concerns could be why climate labels had an edge. Needless to say, Congress might not want to rush to this one.

Still, encouraging a lifestyle shift away from our current levels of meat consumption will almost certainly be necessary for the U.S. to meet its climate goals. One (oft-distorted) paper found that Americans would need to cut 50% of their consumption of animal-based foods to achieve a 51% reduction of diet-related emissions between 2016 and 2030. By another estimate, Americans would have to reduce their meat consumption by 82% to meet the 2019 sustainability recommendations laid out by the EAT-Lancet Commission. In either case, the 10% dissuasion rate brought about by meat warning labels would not be enough on its own — but it would be a significant step in the right direction.

Policymakers, health-care professionals, sustainability and animal welfare advocates, and any others who want to nudge consumers toward eating less meat might want to take note. Not because meat warning labels are on the table (let’s be honest, this is the U.S.: they’re not), but because the research shows the climate cause is a place where consumers are ever-so-slightly more receptive when it comes to setting down the steak knife. Just some food for thought.


Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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