Flexibility for flexitarians: thoughts about how to govern a reduction in meat consumption

One issue at the heart of the debate around sustainable consumption is the consumption of meat and other animal products. I recently read an article on the feasibility of the reduction of meat consumption by Dagevos and Voordouw (2013), which lead me to consider this issue from a governance perspective.

Dagevos and Voordouw conducted two representative consumer surveys in the Netherlands and their results suggest that only about a quarter of the surveyed population eat meat at their main meal every day. The rest are flexitarians, who do not eat meat at their main meal at least once per week, and a small group (less than 5%) of vegetarians and vegans, who do not eat meat at all. The authors conclude that while policy-makers are more than hesitant to put the issue of meat consumption on the political agenda, many consumers are already “making progress towards more sustainable foodstyles by reducing their meat-consumption frequency rather than by giving up meat completely” (p. 66). They deem it therefore feasible that policy makers “pursue policies that encourage reductions in meat consumption (an eat less meat approach) without endorsing initiatives to drastically cut or even ban it (a no meat approach)” (p. 66).

Reading this article, the varied initiatives to establish a fixed “veggie day” in all different kinds of canteens – be they in schools, universities, administration, or private companies – came to my mind, as well as the polemic and resistance that such initiatives often meet. It is not as if these initiatives tried to turn everybody into a vegetarian right away; they try to establish only one single meat-free day per week. Thus, they actually pursue an ‘eat less meat’ approach, which was deemed feasible by Dagevos and Voordouw. And if such individual initiatives introduced at lower governance levels (the single canteens) are faced with such opposition, imagine the resistance to a similar ‘eat less meat’ policy introduced by higher governance levels. That is why I wondered: If many consumers already adopt a flexitarian eating style on a voluntary basis, why is there so much resistance to having one meat-free day per week?

I doubt the reason is that the results of Dagevos and Voordouw are specific for the Netherlands or that in other European countries the majority of the people still want meat on their plate every single day. The exact numbers may be different in the different countries but I still think that a substantial part of the people in most of the EU countries already do not eat meat every day. In Germany, for instance, meat consumption has dropped by about three per cent (Vorsamer 2014) and about 11% of the German population are vegetarians or vegans (Vegetarierbund Deutschland Januar 2015) – which is more than in the surveyed population of Dagevos and Voordouw.

Maybe the reason rather lies in the prescriptive nature of such initiatives. The definition of a specific veggie day means a limitation of the freedom of choice and this is something many people react sensibly to – and rightly so. Even if there are many people who are willing to abstain from meat on one or several days per week, probably they themselves want to decide when exactly they want to do so. Therefore, even flexitarians might oppose the introduction of a veggie day in their canteen (and on a broader scale as well, if something like that was ever suggested).

So, apparently top-down prescriptions for reductions in meat consumption do not work very well. But what could the alternatives be? One idea, at least for grassroots-like initiatives in canteens, could be a kind of an incentive system: For example, for each meat-free meal, costumers could earn bonus points and after having earned a certain quantity of bonus points they get a bonus, which could be a (meatless) meal for half the price or a free desert or a free drink etc. This approach would meet the same goals as the introduction of a veggie day – raising awareness about the issue of meat consumption and having the substantive outcome of an effective reduction of the consumption of meat. Yet, it would leave consumers the choice of both whether they want to eat meat-free from time to time at all and when they would like to do so. Whether such an incentive system does not only attract freeriding by vegetarians and vegans (the bonus system would have to be designed to be economically feasible despite freeriding vegetarians and vegans) but also lead meat-eaters to actually reduce their meat consumption would be a matter of trying it out in practice.

However, for higher level policies even such a flexible incentive-based approach could still be too hard a measure. Dagevos and Voordouw hold that “public-policy interest in meat reduction, as well as support for policy measures to reduce meat consumption, are currently scarce in European countries—not to mention other parts of the world” (p. 67). This is why rather an incremental strategy starting with “soft policies of engaging and exemplifying” would be needed before “hard policies of enabling (e.g., laws, rules, nudges) and encouraging (e.g., taxes, subsidies)” (p. 67) become feasible. Yet, the implementation of incentive systems as the one proposed above in a few canteens could serve as best-practice examples. This would be in line with the strategy of exemplifying and thus it could help even the path for ambitious higher level policies aiming at the reduction of the consumption of meat.


Dagevos, Hans/Voordouw, Jantine (2013): Sustainability and meat consumption: is reduction realistic? In: Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy, 9. Jg. , Heft 2, S. 60–69.

Vegetarierbund Deutschland (Januar 2015): Anzahl der Vegetarier in Deutschland. Unter: https://vebu.de/themen/lifestyle/anzahl-der-vegetarierinnen (Stand: 20.10.2015).

Vorsamer, Barbara (10.01.2014): Ein Hoch auf die Flexitarier. Unter: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/leben/fleischkonsum-ein-hoch-auf-die-flexitarier-1.1859705 (Stand: 20.10.2015).