Why 'Meat Free Week' Is a Total Misunderstanding of What It Takes to Get People to Change

Personal Health

You can understand why Meat Free Week [MFW] is formulated as it is. From foreign aid to cancer research budgets, people seem incapable of engaging practically with any serious issue unless it comes packaged as a fun national event in which they can take on a challenge, raise money for charity and bang on about it on social media.

The campaigning event, which started in Australia and launched in the UK this week (23-29 March), is an attempt – under the rather smug, facile rubric, “Eat less, care more, feel good” – to get us to reassess our meat consumption, consider industrial farming practices and the impact of such on our health. It is difficult to argue against any of its points on principle, but MFW’s shtick is irritating.

Not only does it sound mendacious in asserting that it is not trying to “convert” anyone to vegetarianism (a bizarre contention from people so concerned with animal welfare), but its presumptuous, middle-class vibe – of healthy, pious self-denial; with its breezy instructions to buy expensive, high-welfare meat and dairy products – seems a very narrow and outdated way of attempting to grow what, surely, they hope will be a mass movement. Such eco-hippy lifestyle propaganda has been a constant background hum in British life for 40 years, and it has had little impact. Any long-term drop in meat consumption appears to have been driven primarily by its cost, rather than an underlying shift in consumer behaviour.

MFW has launched at a time when (post-horse meat scandal, soaring food prices, etc) Britain is arguably more open to reducing its meat intake than at any point in recent memory. The problem is that MFW misunderstands the mentality of meat-eaters. Even those who are keen to cut down on meat eat it because a) it is really tasty, b) they lack the skill, will or time to cook without it, or c) both. By definition, they are not hugely troubled by the ethical issues around eating animals, and preaching a message of (even temporary) moral abstemiousness to them seems pointless. Fundamentally, they are not going to give up meat.

Instead, those who are keen for us to modify our relationship with meat need to sell that change as a sexy, modern alternative, not as an act of self-sacrifice. It needs to be a positive win-win on several fronts. So here are a few thoughts about what MFW could be emphasising. Please add yours below the line.

The hierarchy of damage: Instead of “meat free” week, a better approach might be to stress the greater damage caused by certain meats (corn-fed beef is the prime example) and urge people to swap those for “better” meats. This would surely be more persuasive among the target audience: committed carnivores.

Rip-off roasts: There are a lot of poor people in Britain. Many more feel financially stretched. The cost-effectiveness of cooking with vegetables (not without meat, do not even mention its absence) needs to be positively and repeatedly asserted.

Veg heaven: Similarly, rather than going “meat free” for a week, with all the novelty that suggests, there should be far more promotion of those cuisines (Gujarati or south Indian for example) and subsets of cooking (a lot of Mediterranean/North African dishes), in which the non-use of meat is a non-issue. It is not missed. It was never there.

The guilt trip: However inept and sentimental their response, first-world citizens are moved by remote poverty and hunger. How that is linked to the steak on their plate needs to be emphasised. MFW should be making much more of one of its key facts: “At a time when some 800 million people suffer from malnutrition, one third of the world’s cereal harvest is fed to farm animals – enough to feed almost three billion people.”

Dial down the danger: We are bombarded by contradictory, food-related health scares on an almost daily basis. Questioning the transparency of meat production (viz: the horse meat scandal) is clearly a productive avenue, but do people really engage seriously with the idea that, for instance, eating bacon contributes to bowel cancer? It is just one more thing in a world in which, increasingly, everything is bad for you. Plus, bacon is delicious. Most meat-eaters could give up anything, but you will have to prize that last bacon butty from their cold, dead hands.

Man v mealworm: From the imminent Grub Kitchen, the UK’s first insect-based restaurant, via Rentokil’s (no, really) pop-up Pestaurant, to Wahaca’s occasional cricket dishes, there have been tentative moves into entomophagy – eating insects. But, as yet, no one has put the macho, food-challenge spin on it, which would surely turn it into a far bigger deal. Foodies may wrinkle their noses at such brash populism, but this is not about protecting their delicate sensibilities.

A flexitarian future: What foodies will like is the quiet revolution that (hidden from view behind a huge stack of burgers, BBQ and “dude food”) has been taking place in Britain’s best restaurant kitchens. From air-dried kale to fermented marrow, pickled turnips and wood-fired vegetables, or even cooking with hop oils, a core of cutting-edge UK restaurants are now doing remarkably tasty things with vegetables, often giving them equal billing to the meat. Such reassessment of the protein element in dishes – smaller portions; using the meat as a flavouring or garnish; nose-to-tail utilisation etc – is influential among chefs, but such veg-centric cooking still needs a major PR push if it is to change how people cook at home. The MPW website is full of purely vegetarian dishes, when it could be demonstrating how people can cook cleverly with less meat.

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