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The invisible power of ‘nudging’ is leading diners to cut back on meat

A spread of plant-based, vegetarian foods
A platter of plant-based foods. Photo: Dreamstime

By Agnieszka de Sousa, Bloomberg

Placing plant-based lasagna in the most popular part of the canteen. Serving veggie stir fry so diners have to ask for meat. Renaming vegan food with enticing adjectives like “feel good” and “juicy.”

These are just some of the small changes adding up to a quiet revolution in school cafeterias, hospitals and on university campuses from San Diego to Oslo. The goal is to shift diners toward plant-based options — not by removing animal products entirely, but by nudging people into making different choices.

“Your choice is never in a vacuum,” says Sophie Attwood, a senior behavioural scientist at the nonprofit World Resources Institute, which works on climate solutions. “Your choices are always being nudged, whether or not it’s nudged for the profit motive of the company, or for the environmental motive of the company.”

The environmental footprint of livestock is huge, and the need to tackle it increasingly urgent. Animal agriculture is responsible for roughly 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and livestock is a drag on precious land and water resources. Even if emissions from fossil fuels were to disappear overnight, food emissions alone would still prevent the world from limiting warming to 1.5C as outlined in the Paris Agreement, according to research published in Science.

But as climate solutions become increasingly politicised, institutions are keen to avoid framing individual changes as sacrifices. Forcing or even just telling people to reduce their meat consumption for the sake of the planet is still something of a third rail. The same goes for taxing environmentally unfriendly foods — an effective tool but one that remains politically fraught. Nudges, on the other hand, can be rolled out without any vote, any debate or even much attention.

With roots in psychology, nudge theory was named and popularised by the 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, written by University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein. The duo argued that small, low-lift interventions that don’t restrict people’s overall options can be a powerful lever for changing behaviour.

Nudge theory also has a strong track record in other areas. Some countries use nudges to get people to pay more in taxes, for example, by including messaging in tax bills that highlights their benefits or the penalties for avoiding them. Nudges are used to encourage organ donation by automatically registering individuals as donors unless they explicitly opt out. And nudges have been used to get people to sign up for health insurance by sending out postcards with simplified steps for enrolment. On the food front, nudge theory has been deployed to help people eat healthier by, for example, reducing the size of plates at a buffet.

Attwood says similar tactics can be replicated to reduce emissions. In a report set to publish in May, WRI identified 90 behavioural change techniques to help restaurants and foodservice operators guide diners toward plant-rich meals. Many have already been embraced by companies, public institutions and local governments.

Here are some examples:

  • A number of Nordic countries are testing nudges geared at a plant-based transition. In Denmark, the government is putting money into a project that will develop and test nudges at conferences. And Oslo, which aims to slash its emissions by 95% by 2030, has set meat-free meals by default at public functions.
  • New York City plans to help institutions like Columbia University and the New York Botanical Garden adopt nudges and plant-forward defaults as part of a plan to slash food-related carbon emissions by a quarter by 2030. New York City’s 11 public hospitals also serve patients plant-based food as the main option.
  • UC San Diego Health, which runs three hospitals in California, has been swapping out some meat in the hospitals’ cafeterias and replacing it with plant-based ingredients, such as in vegetable Wellington or mushroom Stroganoff. The health system says it has cut its red meat purchases by 13% since 2017, and has seen a 35% decline in food-related emissions per 1,000 kcals.
  • Google’s employee cafes already frequently place meat at the end of the buffet line, encouraging diners to load up on everything else first. A trial at four of its sites found that using more appealing names for plant-based dishes — “Wine Simmered French Vegetable Medley Soup,” for example — led to a significant rise in their uptake.
  • Food services giant Sodexo North America plans to expand its plant-based default dining to serve 1 million students on almost 400 university campuses. The company ran a pilot program across three universities, and saw an average 24% reduction in emissions when plant-based dishes were served by default and meat were options available only on request.

Plant-based nudges appeal because they can change food habits without getting bogged down in culture-war debates or political polarisation, says Jennifer Channin, executive director at the Better Food Foundation, which works with Sodexo.

“There’s a lot of large-scale change that we could achieve in any of the institutions where food is served,” she says. “Nudges are more than just quiet and discreet. They’re actively changing people’s attitudes in a positive direction towards plant-based foods.”

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