‘An integral part of culture and socialisation’: Attitudes to meat consumption and sustainability in South Africa

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Food choices in South Africa are often determined by a desire to survive. Image Source: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
Food choices in South Africa are often determined by a desire to survive. Image Source: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Related tags South africa Sustainability Food security Meat Meat consumption cost of living crisis

Sustainable food consumption is a significant market in Europe. However, in urban South Africa, a new study suggests, meat consumption is a symbol of prosperity to a greater degree than in Europe, while conversely, those least concerned about environmental food practices live the most sustainable lives.

The study, published in the journal Appetite, ​explores attitudes to food consumption across three different income groups (low, middle and high) in urban South Africa.

Across 13 different discussion groups (one test, three for middle and high income participants, and six for low income due to the fact low income groups represent a larger portion of South Africa’s population), participants were asked questions about food choice in a range of contexts, including economic factors, household preferences, food waste and availability, health, familiarity and sensory appeal, affect on mood and weight, social, cultural and religious aspects, convenience and ability of food to satiate, food context, and food safety.

Meat Consumption 

The study also explored perceptions towards meat consumption. Meat in South Africa is seen as not only a status symbol but essential for some forms of socialisation.

For starters, many participants in the study saw it as a sign of prosperity. One participant said that ‘a meatless meal should be by choice, not by circumstance’, suggesting that those without meat are often seen as relinquishing it only because economic pressures, rather than ethics, sustainability concerns or asceticism. Meat consumption, therefore, symbolises the ability to afford it.

Meat consumption in South Africa is often seen as a sign of prosperity, as well as key to many social gatherings. Image Source: Graham Montanari/Getty Images

However, meat is not only a sign of prosperity but key to social life for many South Africans, and many participants in the study.

Not only is meat a sign of prosperity,”​ Nomzamo Magano, one of the study’s authors, told FoodNavigator, “it is also an integral part of culture and socialisation. Many gatherings in South Africa surround the consumption of meat. It is also the norm, for those that can afford it, to have meat during meals, and people continue to eat meat out of habit​.”

Sustainable living

On the flip-side of this, there is the idea of sustainability, so often linked to meat consumption. Of the groups interviewed about ethics and ethical consumption, the middle and higher income groups expressed stronger concern than those in lower income groups. Conversely, those of lower income often explicitly rejected these concerns, with one saying ‘I don’t worry about ethics and the environment, I have my own problems.’

However, this often, conversely, does not translate into practice, with low income consumers making more sustainable choices due to economic pressures. “Low income consumers are the least likely to waste food and most likely to reuse or repurpose packaging,"​ Magano told us. "This is because they, of all people, need to maximise on their resources to survive.​”

This is shown not only within the context of income groups within South Africa, but between continents as well. Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the study, produces less household waste compared not only with Europe but with Asia and the Americas as well.

Magano also points out that because the study mainly focused on urban residents, it may be incongruent with food choices from rural areas. 

Survival and sustainability 

There were, Magano told us, some similarities between South African consumers and those living in ‘developed’ countries such as France or Germany.

Our study found some parallels between food choice drivers for middle and high income participants and drivers reported in developed countries. For example, the prioritisation and preference for convenience was clearly expressed by participants​.”

Johannesburg, South Africa. Image Source: THEGIFT777/Getty Images

For example, one participant said ‘I don’t want to spend more than 30 minutes preparing food. Something that is going take more than 30 minutes… Probably not gonna make it, probably not gonna buy it.’

However​,” Magano continued, “for the majority of people living in South Africa, the main priority is to avoid hunger by buying and eating any food they can afford during the time of their purchase. Nutritional information, food claims and sustainability are amongst the least of the worries of most people in this context. This is likely to be different for people living in developed countries considering that the food environments are not the same.”

Sourced From: Appetite
'Food choice drivers at varying income levels in an emerging economy’
Published on: 1 October 2023
Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2023.107001
Authors: N. N. Magano, H. Tuorila, H. L. De Kock

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