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“Meatless Mondays” off to an encouraging start in France

Around 5 percent of French people say they are vegan
Around 5 percent of French people say they are vegan REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

The call by a list of 500 known figures, celebrities, NGOs and researchers for consumers to adopt “Green Monday” or meat-free Mondays from the start of 2019, has had a positive response from the French public, according to a poll, two months on.


According to an opinion poll by the company Toluna in February, 51.5 percent of the 2005 people interviewed said they had heard of the “Green Monday” (Lundi Vert) campaign, 10.5 percent had actually put it into practice and 25.1 percent said they intended to join in.

At the beginning of January, 500 celebrities and well known researchers in France, including sailor Isabelle Autissier, actress Juliette Binoche and writer Matthieu Ricard published a piece in Le Monde newspaper calling on consumers to replace meat and fish every Monday to reduce the impact on the environment, combat health problems and improve the treatment of animals.

As reported in Le Monde, 63.8 percent of those interviewed felt animal well-being was the main motivation when it came to reducing the consumption of meat on a regular basis. They found the treatment of animals in abattoirs unacceptable. Only 10.1 percent said they were not concerned by this issue.

48.1 percent considered animal breeding for meat consumption bad for the environment while only 12.4 percent felt this wasn’t a priority.

When it came to dietary choices, a quarter of the interviewees said it was easy enough to avoid meat or fish. 70.5 percent said they like the taste of meat and 54.9 percent said they felt it was necessary to eat meat to be in good health.

Massive change to agricultural practices in France

Two months on, RFI spoke again to Laurent Bègue-Shankland, a professor of social psychology at the University of Grenoble-Alpes, southeast France, who designed the questionnaire for the online “Green Monday” campaign.


RFI: It appears that animal treatment and cruelty are high on the list when it comes to the motivation of people to stop eating meat. Why do you think this issue is so close to French people’s hearts?

It’s more and more difficult for people to believe that animals do not suffer in industrial farms. In France, 99% of rabbits, 95% of pigs, 90% of calves and 82% of chickens are raised industrially. This is rather far from the “country-style” representation conveyed by advertising. Since the fifties, the way farm animals are raised has tremendously changed and more and more people have discovered that behind the low cost of the meat enabled by the massive and spectacular industrialization of production, there is a lot of animal suffering.

When it comes to the main motivations to avoid meat, research shows that there are usually mainly three kind of core motives: animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and human health. The first motive is obviously more vivid and often more emotionally involving than the two others, that’s probably why people think about it immediately.

In France, pro-animal associations have contributed to spread videos showing how farm animals are mistreated in slaughterhouses, and it’s difficult to believe that these examples are limited to some places.

Moreover, many French people have a special relationship with pets, and such a fact may contribute to create a kind of psychological dissonance when they discover that the cognitive and emotional life of a pig or a cow is not less developed than that of their dog. Neuro-scientific studies show that empathy networks are activated when people see animals or humans harmed.

We are hardwired to find harm aversive, especially toward species that are close to mammals, except if we believe that the harmed beings deserve it or do not feel anything. But it’s harder to believe that the existence of animals is only justified by human use or, some may say, human abuse. Such an extension of the circle of moral inclusion is a heavy historical trend that many scientists have noted.

RFI: Many of the people responded that they were afraid of negative consequences on their health if they stopped eating meat. How can you reassure these people on this point?

Replacing meat and fish by vegetarian meals once a week is not a conundrum, and people who try it find it often stimulating and fun. At the same time, in French official recommendations, it was suggested until last year that eating meat was an important component of a healthy diet. It’s only recently that the official guidelines changed, and now even the head of the national program of nutrition says that meat is not really “necessary” for health. This is really a significant change! But this recent evolution needs to be spread and people as well as institutions need time to enrich their meal options and culinary habits.

Regarding the fear of negative consequences of eating less meat, even if someone decided to practice a complete “green week” (vegetarian 7 days per week), he or she could, with some precautions of course, remain in good health. This is the position of the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics on vegetarian diets: “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases”.

However, I would not advice anyone to become suddenly vegetarian of vegan. It takes a little bit time to change food habits, and getting the necessary information and advices to ensure a balanced diet is an important prerequisite, at least if one wants to induce a long-term change.

Some people recently suggested that the Pope become vegan during lent. Personally, I would not suggest this to an 82-year-old man, even a supreme pontiff, to turn to vegetarian food overnight! It’s probably wiser to adopt a step by step dynamics to ensure that the choice will not be given up later. According to a study, three quarters of vegetarians stop vegetarianism at some point. Instead, the Pope could decide to exchange 40 days of the lent to 51 meatless Mondays!

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