The case against advocating for ‘red meat reduction’

Articles which advocate for a reduction in red meat consumption (like this one and this one), often centred around some proposed government action like a meat tax, are often celebrated by animal advocates as a win. I am less certain that something like a tax on meat to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or benefit human health would be a positive. It would very much depend on the specifics of how it is done.

Below I’ve outlined some of my concerns, and have collated some of the discussions and evidence about this, especially from the Effective Animal Activism – Discussion page. I have used people’s names and comments without seeking their permission first, as they were posted in a public group on Facebook and are already 100% public. If you would like your comment anonymised or removed, or have reason to believe that someone else would, please contact me.

When people talk about reducing meat intake for health and environmental reasons they often focus on red meat, such as beef (as opposed to chicken, fish etc.) as this the main diet related contributor of both issues. Processed and red meat are listed by the World Health Organisation as known and probable carcinogens, while other meat is less obviously bad for health, and other meats are often praised as being sustainable alternatives to red meat.

However, chicken and fish cause far more suffering per kilogram than beef. This is easy to conceptualise when you think about the size of a cow vs a chicken or fish. It clearly takes many chicken or fish to produce the same amount of meat as one cow. Whilst there may be reason to believe that chickens and fish are less capable of experiencing pain and pleasure than cows, it seems apparent that switching from a diet of mostly beef to a diet of mostly chickens would create more suffering.

If people are convinced by environmental and health arguments for not eating red meat, there is a chance they will switch some or all of that meat consumption to other meat. If this is the case, promoting the health and environmental issues of red meat (including through some kind of government intervention like a meat tax) may actually increase suffering. This could come about if the government intervention focused on red meat (e.g. bigger tax on red meat, or only taxing red meat). I think this is actually quite likely, since a government is more likely to care about climate change and human health than animal suffering.

This might also come about from individual promotion of the benefits of eating less red meat (e.g. a Facebook post or handing out a flyer), and thus I would be cautious about how one promotes it.

There is an argument that the path to veganism for some might be through a reduction in red meat intake. This may be true, but I’m wary at best.

Having said all this, I have written an article for the Australian Vegans Journal (forthcoming) about how the Australian government can reduce the public health burden by promoting a plant-based diet. Where possible, I try to ensure that I don’t just promote not eating red meat, or at the very least I follow up with a disclaimer about switching to chicken/fish.

I don’t have a lot of data to back up this fear (some arguments and links I’ve outlined below). At the very least, I am worried that this might happen if the intervention or promotion is not handled correctly.

Because so much discussion has already been had around this topic, mostly through blog and Facebook posts, I’ve summarised some of the conversation below. I’ve definitely missed relevant material (this was a very shallow review that took me around 90 minutes). If you know of something that should be included, please add it as a comment for the future use of other readers. Where possible I’ve tried to add my own comment where I think someone has made a claim that does not hold up to evidence, but I may have missed something (or be wrong myself). Please also add this to the comments.

Of interest was the fact that most of this discussion seems to focus on health, but I’m convinced that it can apply to climate change as well. Take for example the Less Meat Less Heat campaign. On their website they advised:

“…trying out vegetarian or vegan options in place of the times you eat beef and lamb or if you can’t do that then switching it over to lower carbon options such as pork or chicken.” [emphasis mine]

Matt Ball wrote a post about this issue in August 2015.

“Moving from red meat to chicken is a well-documented fact. For example: “‘If you look at dietary recommendations put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture [and other health institutions], they are to decrease red meat and substitute lean meat, poultry and fish,’ says Daniel [a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center]. ‘We’ve seen in other data that people are gravitating toward poultry.’”

Finally, the National Institutes of Health notes “[t]he growing preference in the US for poultry, but not fish, as a replacement for red meat.”

There are contradictory studies on how much chicken is eaten by people who give up red meat entirely. But for people who reduce the amount of red meat they eat—the majority of people who change their diet for health reasons—all the data are absolutely clear: red-meat reducers eat much, much more chicken. For example, in the largest recent study, those who consumed the lowest amount of red meat ate fifty percent more chicken than those who consumed the most red meat. [Aston, L. M., et al. Meat Intake in Britain in Relation to Other Dietary Components and to Demographic and Risk Factor Variables: Analyses Based on the National Diet and Nutrition Survey of 2000/2001. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics 26(1), October 18, 2012.]”

If accurate, this seems quite damning for the promotion of health aspects of red meat.

“In other words: I won’t repeat anti-meat arguments. We promote pro-animal arguments. Obviously, it feels good to say: “Vegans have lower rates of disease X.” But the point isn’t to feel good about ourselves or our diet. We’re not out to justify or glorify our choices. Our goal is to keep as many animals from suffering as possible.”

In June 2014, Michael Dickens said:

“According to this survey by Humane League Labs, red meat avoiders eat less chicken than omnivores. This seems to imply that it doesn’t actually harm animals to advocate eating less red meat, as some have argued, since red meatdoesn’t get replaced with chicken.”

To which Wayne Hsuing responded:

“Interesting. But remember correlation != causation.

The question we are facing is not what current red meat avoiders do, but rather how a treatment population will respond to a red meat avoidance strategy. Those are two fundamentally different questions.

I would suggest treating data such as this as a source for hypotheses and nothing more.”

In March 2014 Eitan Fischer made a detailed post about using health arguments which is worth a read in full. I’ve quoted what I think are the most relevant sections below.

“I should preface by saying that I am strongly in favor of focusing on the anti-speciesist message whenever possible. I do think however that there are many individuals for whom the path to veganism will be only through health reasons, at least at first, and that these individuals being vegan will promote veganism generally and facilitate the widespread adoption of antispeciesism. The question I’d like to address here is not whether our approach in advocacy should be to present solely antispeciesist messages, but rather what to make of the potential harm of the health argument.

I will assume that using health arguments, as critics suggest, leads at least some to reduce solely their red meat consumption. As I’ve said before, highlighting health implications of chicken and eggs (e.g. the #1 and #2 greatest sources of cholesterol in our diets), can and should be done, and avoid these concerns. As Nick Cooney has argued in Veganomics,, and elsewhere, red meat reducers don’t tend to significantly increase chicken consumption. But even if they do…

Argument: Paths that are Local Minima can be Global Maxima – even if the health argument leads to short term net harm, it may very likely lead to long term net benefit.

Hypothesis: the quicker red meat falls significantly out of favor, the quicker the path to animal liberation.
Red meat is, in my opinion, the largest hurdle to veganism, and with that, to antispeciesism. Think about the most ardent opposition to going veg: bacon and steaks. Dairy-alternatives and Beyond Eggs are sufficiently advanced to facilitate large-scale replacement of those foods. Chicken alternatives are rapidly growing in quality and popularity. There are no comparable alternatives for red meat.

Second, think about the implications of a group of cherished foods formerly engrained in the Western diet becoming unpopular. Hamburgers? Hot dogs? If these foods become associated with sickness as tobacco has, this will be a massive change in American consumptive habits and will facilitate further change in the other animal product groups. It will make people more likely to question the benefits and risks of the other products, and encourage moves towards products like Beyond Beef, etc.

Finally, add clear health arguments against red meat to the strongest antispeciesist messages (e.g. highlighting pigs’ experiences), and you get a great advocacy tactic. The more ethically harmful practices can be associated with disease-causing foods, the more success the anti-meat, pro-veg meme will have in spreading widely. According to food-psychology (e.g. Melanie Joy), our minds are good at associating certain foods with negative characteristics (aesthetic, prudential) with other negative qualities (ethical). Getting people to view animal products as harmful in one way will make them more likely to adopt the attitudes that they are harmful in others. From there, it’s a much shorter path to veganism.”

Dave Rolksy responded with:

“This is an interesting hypothesis. However, I think there’s another issue with the health argument. There seems to be a lot of evidence to show that people really suck at sticking to diets. If we pitch veganism as a diet for health reasons we may be getting people to make a short term change only to go back to old habits not long after.”

Nick Cooney responded to Dave’s comment saying that:

“Veganomics has the studies that exist on that – there are a few.”

Elaine Vigneault responded to the original post with:

“I agree with Eitan’s thoughts in the OP. But I think there are two real barriers to “the health argument”:
1) accuracy – many who promote veganism or meat-reduction for health reasons make bogus claims and cite unreliable sources,
2) noise – it’s very easy for the “health argument for veganism” to get lost in the noise of fad diets and pro-meat marketing. The public is confused.

I think, however, that we SHOULD promote the health benefits of plant-based diets ALONG with the animal rights and welfare issues and the environmental costs.”

Jason Ketola said:

“I find it plausible that people’s being closer to vegan in their lifestyle can result in them resisting less to arguments for why they should be vegan. The main problem I have with the question as posed in the original post is that it assumes there is a health argument for veganism.

I wish I could say there was one, and that studies like…/2014/03/140304125639.htm made it, but – despite the categorical claims we sometimes see in the headlines – there isn’t and they don’t. Similarly, there’s no science-based argument to be made that smoking ever is bad for you; in fact, it’s debated whether some amount may be beneficial (hormesis). Fwiw, my non-expert reading of the nutrition literature does not lead me to believe that there’s a nutrition-based argument to be made even for severely-restricting (if not entirely avoiding) animal products in one’s diet.

Aside: The “health argument” seems clouded by a lot of motivated reasoning. So many of us want to believe the evidence is on our side when it comes to nutrition (and beyond that social science related to our favored activist tactics) that we don’t apply the same level of care to our analysis of evidence we take to be in or favor as that which isn’t. This is a phenomenon that pervades the recent spate of “evidence-based” activism literature and books.

I hope we can reframe the original question and explore the following: whether it’s a good idea or effective to use a health argument based on a selective and/or motivated reading of the nutrition literature to promote veganism (i.e., do we throw everything out there even if it’s not entirely accurate or in our favor, because it will lead to people being closer to vegan, and because we have reason to believe that will ultimately put more people into a position where they’ll become vegan).”

I agree with the claim that there is a lot of motivated reasoning in promoting veg*nism, however I find their claims about the lack of evidence for limiting and avoiding animal products to be confusing, especially with WHO’s recent announcement about processed and red meat, and the World Global Cancer Research Fund in 2011 suggesting that there is no safe amount of processed meat that can be consumed.

In August 2016, Nic Waller said:

“I found this research about effective animal activism that came out of the University of Arizona.

– 51% of non-vegetarians are open to the idea of reducing meat consumption.
– People believe “eating healthier” means replacing red meat with chicken.
– “Price, taste and even health put aside, it seems clear that vegetarian foods should try harder to fill the role of chicken nuggets.”
– “A campaign that could unobtrusively and effectively convince chicken/turkey eaters to only reduce their chicken/turkey consumption would have a significant effect on the frequency these people eat meat.”

… and so on.”

Sentience Politics (authored by Adrian Rorheim) wrote a relevant blog post in June 2016 titled ‘China’s meat consumption is going up, not down – and dietary guidelines alone won’t change that’, and Ginny Messina wrote a post titled ‘Bad news for red meat is bad news for chickens’ in August 2011.

The section titled ‘The Health Argument’ on Vegan Outreach’s ‘Advocacy’ page has some relevant information and comments.

The mission of One Step For Animals appears to be cognizant of this issue, and is worth a read.

4 thoughts on “The case against advocating for ‘red meat reduction’”

  1. Note:
    “I find their claims about the lack of evidence for limiting and avoiding animal products to be confusing”
    Your follow-on comment is about red and processed meats, not all animal products. Ginny Messina has great surveys on this, and, as the world’s leading vegan Registered Dietician, has decided that there really is no basis for saying avoiding *all* animal products is optimal (even if people were to do that).

    What is most important is Wayne H’s point above. Society-side trends clearly show a significant decline in the consumption of red meat, and a vast increase in the consumption of chickens. This is beyond any doubt. (You don’t have to get to the regular occurrence of people saying “Oh, I don’t eat much meat, just chicken.”) Given the huge increase in suffering caused by any switch to chicken, and the fact that this trend could not be any more apparent in the actual consumption data, I don’t see any way around Ginny’s conclusion:

    1. I’ve made some comments below about this, but I agree it seems apparent that an optimised diet isn’t *necessarily* a vegan one. Another reason to not promote health benefits.

      “But publicizing every new study about the hazards of red meat doesn’t promote veganism; it promotes animal suffering.”

      Yes, I agree with this conclusion, and it’s pretty powerful. That’s why I generally try not to advocate health benefits of reducing red/processed meat except with careful disclaimers, and even then I feel awkward about it.

  2. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for your post.

    When you write “I find their claims about the lack of evidence for limiting and avoiding animal products to be confusing, especially with WHO’s recent announcement about processed and red meat, and the World Global Cancer Research Fund in 2011 suggesting that there is no safe amount of processed meat that can be consumed.”, what are you seeing as evidence for limiting or avoiding animal products? I read this evidence as reason to avoid or limit _particular_ animal products but not to avoid animal products outright or even most exiting animal products.

    1. Hi Jason, processed meat and red meat seem to be the ‘worst offenders’ as far as animal products go, but there also seems to some (somewhat weaker) evidence for dairy producing negative health outcomes, especially relating to osteoporosis. I haven’t heard anything negative health-wise about eggs, except to say that too much protein can be a bad thing (not sure what the threshold is). Seafood seems to be less good than it used to be because of mercury and other trace elements present. At the very least, too much seafood can be bad.

      Finally, poultry and white land meat seem to be the most benign, but I am still under the general impression that a plant-based diet is a more efficient way to get nutrients and maintain a healthy diet.

      All this being said as a non-expert in health science, so take it with a grain of salt. This is just my impression from my reading.

      However, even if white meat turned out to be healthy, I still wouldn’t advocate for it (I certainly wouldn’t lie about it, I just wouldn’t advocate it) for the reasons explained in this post.

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