‘The farmers’ dilemma’: Do meat reduction policies really hurt meat industry workers?
Arguments for meat reduction backed up by intensive animal agriculture’s impact on the environment, public health, and animal welfare, have been well thought out.
However, two researchers – Christopher Bryant from the University of Bath in the UK and Cor van der Weele from Wageningen University in the Netherlands – have raised concerns that ‘significant’ political, and economic resistance to curtailing the consumption of animal products remain.
“In particular, it is not clear what will happen to farmers and those employed in meat production,” they noted in a recent study published in Appetite.
“Although a move to more plant-based diets will stimulate the demand for some types of agriculture while curtailing others, the coming agricultural transition will introduce more uncertainty for a group who have already faced plenty in recent years.”
Not only does the protein transition present a ‘legitimate economic problem’ for policymakers to contend with, but the researchers argue there is reason to think that many meat industry workers share some of the same concerns – notably related to the environment, animal welfare, and public health.
This, the researchers call ‘the farmers’ dilemma’.
A move away from animal agriculture
Animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is a key factor in biodiversity loss, freshwater use, and pollution.
Occupying 70% of agricultural land, animal agriculture – depending on its intensity – has also been associated with poor animal welfare conditions.
As meat is considered more resource-intensive to produce than plant-based foods, pressure is mounting to reduce their consumption in the western world.
Environmental impact and animal welfare aside, arguments championing meat reduction are similarly building from a public health standpoint. High meat consumption has been associated with a number of negative health outcomes – such as the largest cause of death globally: ischaemic heart disease.
In response, policymakers are slowly turning away from support of animal agriculture. The European Union expresses support for a more plant-based diet in its Farm to Fork strategy. Elsewhere, China has plans to reduce meat consumption by 50% by 2030, and when Canada revised its food guidelines in 2019, it removed a recommendation to consume three portions of dairy per day.
As pressure grows to reduce animal protein intake, so too does innovation in the plant-based meat alternative space. The most prominent examples of meat analogues include those made from plant proteins – predominantly soy and pea – and cultivated meat made from real animal cells.
The latter has currently received regulatory approval in just one geography to date: Singapore.
Investigating ‘moral ambivalence’
Bryant told this publication he was particularly taken by 'the farmers' dilemma' topic having previously investigated the acceptance of cultivated meat amongst farmers.
“We found…that working in animal farming or meat production was related to cultivated meat acceptance, as we might have expected. However, what we did not expect was the direction of this relationship: rather than being more likely to oppose cultivated meat, these meat industry workers were actually more likely to support it.”
Upon further research, the study authors were surprised to find that meat industry workers actually had higher rates of meat avoidance than the rest of the population.
“I spoke about this with my co-author, Cor van der Weele, and she said that her focus group research had uncovered similar themes: farmers who discussed cultured meat often expressed ambivalence about their profession, and some spoke about others showing a sense of betrayal when they expressed moral concerns.”
By analysing quantitative survey data and qualitative interview data, Bryant and Weele aimed to bring to light the ‘moral ambivalence’ farmers and meat production workers feel about their work, and at least ‘begin a discussion’ about how the role of animal farmers in the societal shift away from meat can be understood.
Why do meat workers avoid meat?
The quantitative survey data comes from the aforementioned 2020 study published in Foods last year, which Bryant co-authored. The data comprised nationally representative samples of 1000 people in France and 1000 in Germany.
Closer examination of the data revealed that not only were those working in the meat industry more likely to purchase cultured meat – even though this technology could threaten their livelihood – but they were also more likely to abstain from eating meat.
Both in France and Germany, meat industry workers are more likely than those outside the meat industry to follow meat-restricted diets, the researchers observed. For Bryant, this was the most surprising finding throughout the study.
“In France, 25% of the general population identify as flexitarian, while 69% are omnivores – this compares to 41% flexitarians and 48% omnivores in meat industry workers,” he told FoodNavigator.
“In Germany, almost 20% of meat industry workers avoid meat altogether, compared to 11% of the rest of the population!”
When the workers were asked why they chose to avoid meat, meat industry workers gave fewer reasons. When they did provide answers, in Germany meat workers noted food safety and the environment as major factors. In France, price and animal ethics were significant factors (due to a technical mishap, ‘environment’ was not offered to French workers as a possible response).
Across both countries, animal ethics was sighted as the key reason for meat avoidance amongst non-meat workers.
Farmers’ view on meat production
The researchers also analysed data from a qualitative focus group study in the Netherlands. This particular data set centred around cultured meat, and whether it could be an opportunity for farmers, rather than a threat.
Farmers and other stakeholders were asked to consider four ‘visual scenarios’ representing different potential forms of farmer involvement in cultured meat production. And from this data, Bryant and van der Weele were able to ascertain farmers’ view on meat production in general.
Farmers had a number of concerns: notably their precarious economic position, the lack of appreciation they feel from the side of consumers and the government, and the growing set of ever more stringent requirements and regulations.
“Farmers tended to think that environmental problems are real, but they spoke in somewhat cynical terms about consumers who love animal welfare but are not prepared to pay for it,” noted the researchers.
Just one farmer explicitly mentioned animal ethics, noting: “Ever more farmers are morally concerned about what they do, caring for animals that are then killed, and that is new and worldwide, and everybody knows it but you cannot say it as a farmer, it is high treason.”
The researchers suspect that if this farmer is correct, moral concern among farmers – especially about animals – remains largely ‘hidden below the surface’ and behind other concerns.
What can policymakers learn from this research?
Ultimately, the research challenges the idea that meat curtailment policies hurt meat industry workers.
While it is commonly perceived that alternative protein products present a threat to animal farmers, the researchers suggest those working in meat production are ‘often ambivalent’ about meat, avoid meat more often than non-meat industry workers, and may be under pressure not to talk about their concerns.
“Meat industry workers may appreciate learning that others in the industry feel the same way, even if they do not speak about it,” they noted. “Those economically dependent on animal farming may consider other new opportunities in agriculture, but policymakers must be sensitive to this period of transition and help ease economic anxieties.”
So what can governments and policymakers learn from this research?
“Smart policymakers recognise the need to cut animal product consumption, and some bold policymakers have taken steps to do that – but too many politicians are held back by the idea that these policies hurt farmers,” explained Bryant. “This research shows that many meat industry workers share concerns about the industry, and many more feel that they cannot speak out about such concerns.”
The researcher continued: “The time to support and invest in alternative proteins is now. Governments can change dietary guidelines, introduce taxes and subsidies, and cut animal products in public food outlets – but ultimately, if these policies are to be acceptable and effective, consumers need high quality affordable alternative proteins.”
‘The farmers’ dilemma: Meta, means, and morality’
Published online 23 July 2021
Authors: Christopher Bryant, Cor van der Weele