Pro-climate menu options urge diners to go meatless – Mother Jones

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This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate office collaboration.

Simple changes Messages on restaurant menus can double the frequency of customers choosing plant-based options instead of meat, according to a study on the impact of food on the climate crisis.

The production, transport and consumption of food has become a growing concern for climate researchers, with a recent study finding that the food industry accounts for more than a third of total annual global warming emissions.

Much of the pollution is centered around meat. Raising cattle, chickens and pigs for meat, a process that often involves clearing large tracts of forest, causes about double the emissions of plant-based foods.

Meat consumption remains stubbornly high in the United States — the average American gobbled up 264 pounds of meat in 2020 — and is rising rapidly in countries like China. Many people are receptive to the idea of ​​switching to vegetarian options in order to help the environment, however, research has found restaurant menu messages to be a potentially important way to change behavior.

A multi-stage experiment conducted by the non-profit research organization World Resources Institute (WRI) involved around 6,000 people in the United States and their reaction to menu descriptions. Researchers tested responses to 10 different sustainability-themed messages when participants were asked to choose between different options on a menu, such as a bean burrito or a beef burrito.

Several of the messages produced dramatic results. Guests who read “Each of us can make a positive difference for the planet. Replacing a single meat dish with a plant-based dish saves greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years. Your little change can make a big difference” on their menus chose a vegetarian dish 25% of the time, more than double the rate of diners who received no message.

Another message: “90% of Americans are making the switch to eating less meat. Join this growing movement and choose plant-based dishes that have less impact on the climate and are kinder to the planet” – prompted 22% of people to choose a plant-based dish, again a lot higher than the standard group.

Other messages, about the taste of food and the need to protect the planet for future generations, have also shown positive results in the choice of vegetarian meals, suggesting that consumer choices can be significantly shaped by how menus are presented.

“We know behavioral science is key, it really moves the needle,” said Edwina Hughes, head of the cool food pledge, an initiative of WRI and the United Nations. “The themes of making a small change for a big impact and also joining a movement really drove the herbal options.”

Hughes said Americans were ready for a ‘nudge’ towards vegetarian options, likening these messages to hotels asking their guests not to require their towels to be replaced every day, in order to save needed water to wash them.

“Using descriptive messages that show the benefits of plant-based food choices can empower people to change their behavior and choose low-carbon dishes,” Hughes said. “We can do this because people are prepared and ready for this type of message. They are receptive to climate messaging and actively seek out brands and logos that indicate climate-friendly products and services. »

The WRI researchers said previous attempts to promote vegetarian options had failed.

Dishes were functionally named “vegetarian lasagna” or “meatless sausage”, compared to more appealing meat nomenclature like “grass-fed beef” or “butter-fried chicken”.

When dishes are called vegan, it “really turns the general public off. It comes across as preachy, righteous, aggressive,” said Jonathan Wise, a consumer researcher who added that more “inclusive” messaging could make people switch to plant-based meals more easily.

“We launched a falafel burger in 2009, we said it was organic and it was for vegetarians. It never sold well and we closed it,” said Kaj Torok, director sustainability at Max Burgers, a fast food company from Sweden. . “The main thing we said to ourselves was, ‘Let’s not settle for this small group.’ It was important to reach out to flexitarians [people who can skip eating meat] and those who want to reduce their impact on the climate.

Torok said Max Burgers is now focusing on taste, rather than whether what’s being served is meat or not, allowing him to dramatically increase the number of plant-based burgers on the shelves. menus.

The company is part of WRI’s Cool Food Meals program, which has seen several food producers, including the Panera Bread chain, agree to disclose the carbon footprint of menu choices.

However, such labeling is far from universal, with most people unaware of the climate cost of the foods they eat. “The moment should be here where we have third-party verification of this,” Torok said.

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