This paper outlines the political, economic and cultural factors that present a challenge to efforts to reduce the consumption of red and processed meat (RPM), particularly in high-income settings. The study focuses mainly on high-income countries such as the US, UK, Australia and Sweden.
The paper uses a framework grounded in political economy to guide a narrative synthesis of many sources of information on the issues. This framework consists of:
- The “Three I’s”: Interests, Ideas and Institutions.
- The first part of this framework identifies the actors who have an interest in reducing meat consumption, such as governments, businesses, civil society, consumers and scientists.
- These interests are fed by ideas, that is, the “shared values, beliefs, assumptions and forms of knowledge about the nature of reality, that guide decision-making and behaviour.”
- The most influential ideas can eventually form institutions such as government policymaking processes, laws or social norms. Institutions can be formal or informal.
- Clapp and Fuchs’ power framework (see here and here), including:
- Instrumental power: the ability of one actor to influence another, for example by lobbying policymakers, making political donations or sponsoring certain research.
- Discursive power: the ability to influence norms, values, beliefs, and the “frames” through which issues can be viewed and interpreted.
- Structural power: the “power to control the range of choices available to others”, for example governments being able to include or exclude certain actors from the policymaking process, or globalisation making it easier for transnational corporations to transfer resources between nations and thus force governments to “compete” to attract investments.
The paper identifies the following actors who have an interest in either maintaining or reducing meat consumption:
- Businesses and industry groups such as large livestock corporations, animal feed suppliers, small and medium livestock producers, industry associations, and producers of alternative proteins.
- Governments and intergovernmental organisations including government departments responsible for food, health and the environment, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, and the Codex Alimentarius Commission which sets international food standards.
- Civil society groups and citizens, including those actively promoting meat reduction, such as the US Reducetarian Foundation, the EAT Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund.
The ideas that influence meat reduction policy were found to include:
- The ideology of carnism, that is, the view that eating meat is natural and desirable. In some cultures, eating meat is linked to ideas of masculinity and strength.
- Neoliberalism, a term used here to refer to the promotion of free markets, deregulation and a smaller role for governments in controlling economic activity.
- Linked to neoliberalism, the idea of productivism, which emphasises increasing agricultural efficiency and yields, for example through intensive livestock farming methods.
The paper also identifies institutions (note that the definition of institutions here refers to norms and traditions as well as formal organisations) that are influential in the meat reduction debate:
- Co-dependence of governments and the meat industry. For example, some government subsidies in the US support large livestock corporations by subsidising crops for animal feed. In Australia, politicians in some areas are hesitant to challenge the meat industry because of its perceived political importance in swing states.
- Trade agreements and international investment law. For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement led to an increase in meat imports to Mexico. National governments may sometimes be afraid to take regulatory action in case other World Trade Organisation member states challenge the new regulations.
- Policy incoherence. Policies for reducing meat consumption are often isolated and intervene at only a single point, such as a meat tax or new agricultural technology. However, many expert bodies recommend using a range of integrated policy levers to transform the food system.
The paper then goes on to discuss the different types of power than influence the meat reduction debate.
- Examples of instrumental power include: large transnational corporations being able to lobby against policies that aim to reduce meat consumption, for example by attempting to influence dietary guidelines in the US and Australia; Tyson Foods lobbying the US government to reopen meat processing plants despite the risk of COVID-19 spreading between workers; lobbying in Brazil that results in indigenous land being privatised.
- Examples of discursive power include: framing meat reduction as an extremist vegan agenda; framing certain forms of ruminant production as part of the solution to climate change; focusing on consumer labelling to frame meat reduction as being the responsibility of consumers.
- Examples of structural power include: larger companies having more power to control the prices given to suppliers; the Bolsonaro administration in Brazil actively removing barriers to deforestation to favour land clearance for livestock; and government food procurement standards.
The authors conclude that reducing consumption of red and processed meat most likely requires a “paradigm shift in mainstream policy-making” to address the barriers identified in this review.
Diets high in red and processed meat (RPM) contribute substantially to environmental degradation, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the global burden of chronic disease. Recent high-profile reports from international expert bodies have called for a significant reduction in global dietary meat intake, particularly RPM, especially in high-income settings, while acknowledging the importance of animal-sourced foods to population nutrition in many lower-income countries. However, this presents a major yet under-investigated political challenge given strong cultural preferences for meat and the economic importance and power of the meat industry.
A theoretically-guided narrative review was undertaken. The theoretical framework used to guide the review considered the interests, ideas and institutions that constitute food systems in relation to meat reduction; and the instrumental, discursive and structural forms of power that actors deploy in relation to others within the food system.
High production and consumption levels of RPM are promoted and sustained by a number of factors. Actors with an interest in RPM included business and industry groups, governments, intergovernmental organisations, and civil society. Asymmetries of power between these actors exist, with institutional barriers recognised in the form of government-industry dependence, trade agreement conflicts, and policy incoherence. Industry lobbying, shaping of evidence and knowledge, and highly concentrated markets are key issues. Furthermore, prevailing ideologies like carnism and neoliberalism present embedded difficulties for RPM reduction. The literature noted the power of actors to resist meat reduction efforts exists in varying forms, including the use of lobbying, shaping of evidence and knowledge, and highly concentrated markets.
There are a number of political challenges related to RPM reduction that contribute to policy inertia, and hence are likely to impede the transformation of food systems. Research on policy efforts to reduce RPM production and consumption should incorporate the role of power and political feasibility.
Sievert, K., Lawrence, M., Parker, C. and Baker, P., 2020. Understanding the political challenge of red and processed meat reduction for healthy and sustainable food systems: a narrative review of the literature. International Journal of Health Policy and Management. Available online.
Read the full paper here or here (PDF link). See also the Table explainer What can be done to shift eating patterns in healthier, more sustainable directions?