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School of Social Sciences

Meat, methane and the environment

The environmental impact of consumption is one of the biggest challenges facing society. The cumulative effect of our everyday activities on climate change is not something we can ignore.

The main factors contributing to negative environmental impact are domestic activities that people often do without thinking – travelling, keeping our houses warm, eating. It’s common knowledge that fossil fuels used in transport and energy production are bad for the environment and many of us try to reduce our energy consumption in this regard. It is much less common that we think twice about buying meat.

Yet meat consumption, particularly beef consumption, makes up 15% of greenhouse gas production globally.

Professor of Sociology at The University of Manchester and Professorial Research Fellow at the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI), Alan Warde, specialises in the sociology of consumption, focusing on food and eating.

His passion for the subject is clear: “The way I see it, this is the biggest problem facing our society today.”

He is motivated by the scale of the problem and its immediacy – the need to make a difference, even if we can’t reverse what’s already been done:

“I don’t think we can fix the problem before the environmental impact becomes seriously damaging, but we can mitigate effects on future generations. It has got to a point where it’s reached dangerous levels and something needs to be done.”

Massive meat consumption in China is making the issue even more pressing. Dr Ali Browne, Research Fellow at the SCI and Lecturer in Human Geography, explains:

“The rising consumption of meat among the Chinese middle classes is a particular concern, with meat consumption increasing as income and urbanisation increases. China is now consuming 28% of the world’s meat and dairy products and a staggering 50% of its pork.”

Chopsticks on a plate of Chinese food - salad, dumplings and a dipping sauce

China now consumes 50% of the world’s pork as urbanisation and income increase.

The Chinese government is keen to curb this trend, and wants to reduce meat consumption by 50%. Last year it released guidelines on nutrition, promoting the health benefits of a more moderate approach to meat-eating, as well as an ‘empty your plate’ campaign to reduce food waste.

But Ali says this will undoubtedly be a challenge:

“By exploring everyday consumption of meat in people’s lives, we now fully appreciate the cultural and nutritional importance of meat in China, and we know reducing meat consumption is going to be far from straightforward.”

SCI’s ongoing collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), a major think-tank in China, means that researchers here have a hugely influential role to play in alleviating the problem and changing consumer behaviour where it matters most.

Alan Warde’s main research interest lies in understanding why individuals behave in certain ways regarding eating and preparing food, and the importance of habit and routine in this behaviour. This behavioural approach has the potential to significantly influence meat consumption.

“If we understand why people act in certain ways, and how society influences those actions, we can get closer to changing the way society functions ...”

He says: “If we understand why people act in certain ways, and how society influences those actions, we can get closer to changing the way society functions, and through that, people’s behaviour. It’s the framing of behaviour that needs to be addressed, the changing of contexts, rather than the behaviour itself. You can tell people to behave more sensitively, but they don’t.”

Understanding the issues and working out ways to address them is the key focus of this work, but the team at SCI is hopeful that this will, in turn, influence policy:

“By increasing awareness among those with some degree of power and influence, and through our valuable relationship with CASS, we can hope to make a difference.”