Climate Crisis

Fighting Our Food Fallacy

Eating less meat is one of the top drivers to bring down our personal CO2 footprint (and no, using fewer plastic bags does not make the top ten list). That is one of the reasons why plant-based food is hyped these days. But after surveying more than 5,000 people in the US and Germany, the truth is that we massively underestimate how much meat we still consume. That begs the question of how to encourage more sustainable food habits. 

If you live in the “climate crisis” filter bubble like myself, you get the impression that everyone is happily munching on plant-based food 24/7 these days (recent sales data points to exponential growth). In 2020, 400,000 more Germans claimed to be vegetarian than the year before. Yet, per capita consumption of meat across OECD countries has actually increased by close to 9% since 2010.

Now try this: When speaking with friends, casually drop the message that you have become a vegetarian. My guess is that in 8 out of 10 cases, your friends will feel compelled to respond like this: “Oh well, actually, you know, we really don’t eat meat that much anymore, do we, honey?”

It seems that being a vegetarian (or consuming less meat) is becoming the “socially desirable” answer. This is great if it heralds a new social norm of more sustainable eating behavior. However, it also means that we are more likely to lie (to others and ourselves) about our true meat consumption.

To get to the bottom of this, the Donanto Foundation sponsored a series of simple surveys in the US and Germany. Here is what we started with: “Please estimate: How much meat do you personally eat on average per day? (Please remember to include meat in frozen meals, convenience food, when eating out, cold cuts, etc.)”

We gave respondents seven answers to choose from and since people have trouble estimating meat weights, we explained each option briefly:

(Nerd note: We randomized this list of options for each respondent to eliminate potential order effects. The analysis was straightforward: If we have a sample of respondents that is representative of the overall population (aged 18+) and multiply the percentage frequency of each choice with its individual meat weight, we can add up the average per-capita meat consumption and compare it to the real average meat consumption.)

Personally, I was not surprised that respondents’ personal average was lower than the real average meat consumption. What did surprise me was just how much we are off: We actually eat 71% more meat than we think in Germany and 49% in the US.

To put this in perspective: Over the course of a year, each of us eats an additional five chicken, plus one-fifth of a pig, plus 2% of a whole cow more than we think (rough estimate based on the German meat mix). I am no psychologist, but perhaps this is an extension of the Dunning Kruger effect, where “people are typically overly optimistic when evaluating the quality of their performance on social and intellectual tasks”.

(Nerd note: You may think this is because respondents had trouble allocating their meat consumption to an average day. To check, we asked another 600 people the same question, only this time we asked for their meat consumption over an entire week. Lo and behold, the weekly respondents were even further away from reality than the daily ones!)

To test if we can eliminate the social desirability bias and tap the wisdom of the crowds, we repeated the survey with a slightly different question (in Germany): We asked respondents to estimate the daily meat consumption of the average person, not for themselves.

Well, what can I say, the wisdom of our crowd was much better than their personal estimate, but still not great overall: In reality, we still eat roughly 24% more than respondents estimated.

You probably noticed that I have been withholding the real meat consumption figures. So here comes this ugliest of truths: On average, each of us eats about 280 grams or roughly 10 oz of meat EVERY F***ING DAY! That’s in the US, in Germany, it amounts to 160 grams.

Wow. I’m going to let this sink in for a second.

Even after adjusting for some spoilage, plate waste, and other losses in grocery stores, restaurants, and homes, these numbers are still stunning, since they include everyone who cannot or will not eat meat.

OK, so excessive meat consumption is a major driver of climate change (and bad health), yet most of us fail to recognize how our own consumption is fueling this. Now let’s step back and think about what to do with this insight.

Here is a crazy thought: What about applying some learnings from smoking cessation programs? Smoking cessation has been under scientific scrutiny for decades, so there is a host of valuable knowledge out there, for example:

  1. Smoking cessation follows specific stages (precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance), and “how much progress patients make after an intervention is directly related to what stage they are in prior to intervention”. If most meat-eaters are in denial about how much they really eat, perhaps we need to target earlier phases of their process.
  2. Over a hundred studies show that making tobacco more expensive is “a powerful tool for reducing tobacco use” and that tobacco taxes are not very regressive due to the high price sensitivity of low-income smokers. Therefore, the current discussion on increasing meat prices in Germany, e.g., by means of a surcharge to finance more animal-friendly farming (“Tierwohlabgabe”), may have a positive side effect.

If you are already in the “action” stage and would like to do something about your personal meat consumption, bear in mind to start small, but with consistency, for example, try to skip meat for lunch every Friday. If that works, move on to grander plans, like ProVeg’s free online 30-day Veggie Challenge. Good luck!

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