Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Meat and Potato: Why You Should Want Other People to Eat Less Meat.

For a long time, I was one of those people who thought that being vegetarian was the right thing to do, but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I recognised that the environmental impact of meat was bad, and probably disproportionate, I felt uneasy with the idea of killing animals, and I had the vague sense that eating another animal was wrong, but I liked meat so much that I pushed it from my mind.

Before you think you’re in for a lecture, don’t worry. I am not about to try and badger you into giving up meat. I have tried every argument I can muster to persuade my girlfriend, who I live with, not to eat meat, and to no avail. If I can’t persuade the person I probably know best, what chance have I with you, a complete stranger?

Instead, I am going to make a different case to you. Regardless of whether you eat meat, you should want other people not to.

Meat consumption has both positives and negatives, and your decision on whether to eat them will balance this. On the one hand, almost everyone can acknowledge that meat is not great for the environment, it requires a lot of resources, kills animals, whose lives we can agree attract some value. On the other hand, meat is nice, eating it is fun, and it is an important part of many food cultures and cuisines[1].

There are both positives and negatives to eating meat, but crucially, the positives all accrue to us as individuals, whilst the negatives are mostly societal. The downsides then, are known in Economics as ‘externalities,’ because they don’t just impact me and the people who I buy meat from, they also impact other people who are ‘external’ to the transaction. As a result, it makes sense for even the most ardent of meat-eaters to want meat for themselves, but veg for everyone else.

So how can we encourage other people to eat less meat?

If you like meat a lot and there are lots of people who are more lukewarm, small incentives against meat-eating won’t affect you much. They may, however, change the behaviour of other people.

For example, colleges could make some small changes. They could charge a different amount for meat and vegetarian meals [we would need to check whether this is actually the case at all colleges]. The fact that the charge is the same is, to be frank, slightly baffling; surely a vegetarian meal costs less? Rather, in an example of how prices in Oxford often owe more to tradition than supply and demand (a discussion for a different column), the prices are almost certainly determined by the (majority) meat-based meals.

Where colleges provide vegetarian ‘cards’, they should also switch the default, handing out ‘meat’ cards instead. This would make handling a price differential logistically easier, but also make a vegetarian meal seem less like a bizarre lifestyle decision, like consuming only fruit juice or being a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party. Furthermore, it would reduce the possibility that a vegetarian might absent-mindedly forget to collect a card and begin eating a meat-based meal[2].

All these suggestions aim to reduce people’s marginal consumption of meat, not to drive them into vegetarianism. However, for the odd meal, which people were almost undecided on anyway, it might persuade people to take the veggie option.

Now, if you are a meat-eater, you would be slightly worse off; after all, you would have to pay more for your meals. But the difference we are talking about is trivial and could be implemented mostly by lowering the price of vegetarian meals[3]. Such a change would be enough to make people think a little more about the choice of meal without imposing undue costs on anyone. If you really enjoy meat, surely paying a couple of pounds more per week for it isn’t going to put you off?

The result would be that if you really like meat, you now get the best of both worlds. You can eat your meat but enjoy the externalities of other otherexternalities other people’s actions.

However, by moving vegetarian meals from a fringe option into the mainstream, colleges could prompt a substantial shift in overall consumption. If replicated at other universities and in workplace canteens, you could see a significant move which would benefit all of us. And if a few people decide to try out the vegetarian option to see if it’s worth the additional pennies, then all the better. Who knows, you might find, like I did, that you really don’t miss meat as much as you thought you would.

Image credit: Honolulu Media / CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

[1] Not least my native British, which, it has to be said, is not the friendliest of cuisines to vegetarians; meat and two veg without any meat is just broccoli and carrots drenched in some coloured vegetable stock masquerading as gravy.

[2] Of course, you could take this to extremes, assuming vegan, nut-free, gluten-free, sorbitol-allergic meals, but so few people would benefit that the social advantage would be outweighed by the sheer number of people inconvenienced.

[3] Since there are fewer vegetarian meals than meat ones, increasing the price of meat meals negligibly could finance a much more substantial reduction in vegetarian meal-pricing.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles