About the author: Yolie Michielsen is a PhD candidate at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. She has a background in cultural anthropology (BSc), consumption sociology (MSc), and philosophy of culture (MA). Her PhD focuses on resistance in the societal transition towards reduced meat consumption. The first part of the thesis, written with co-promotor Dr. Hilje van der Horst (sociologist and human geographer), studies backlash against meat curtailment policies in online discourse.
Flyer: Background image adapted from Dairy farmers protest, Brussels, 5th of Oct. 2009 by Teemu Mäntynen on Flickr, Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic — CC BY-SA 2.0.
Have you noticed how politicians who propose meat reduction policies, such as a meat tax, inspire fierce backlash on social media? Answering the ‘Why?’ question moves us beyond the obvious explanation that people are emotionally attached to their traditional meaty diets. Our study found that populism plays an important role in the Dutch context. Populism slows down societal meat reduction, and solving it will not be easy.
What is populism?
Are politicians that follow popular opinion populists? Can only right-wing parties be populist? Is populism anti-democratic? The answers are no. These are common misconceptions about populism. So what is populism? Though the term is widely used in the media and science, it is often not clearly defined, perhaps because there are multiple definitions out there (e.g., “populism is a political tool to mobilise people”). In our paper, we followed Mudde & Kaltwasser (2017) in interpreting populism as an ideology which divides society in two distinct homogeneous and antagonistic groups: “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”. Populists claim to represent the general will of the people – of which politics should be an expression – and the people are seen as oppressed by a corrupt elite. While some politicians may use populist rhetoric as a means to a goal, only the ones who are driven by such ideas should be seen as populists.
Importantly, populism alone doesn’t give comprehensive answers to political questions. What is the general will of the people? Why is the elite seen as corrupt? Populism is often connected to other, “fuller”, ideologies that do give answers to such questions, giving insight into the political system a populist is pursuing. These are also called “host” ideologies. For instance, in left-wing politics, populism is usually linked to the host ideology of socialism, and in right-wing politics, to nationalism.
If populism is not anti-democratic, why is it seen as a threat to liberal democracy? In democracies, all parties, including populists, underscore the idea that the people should decide; however, populists see “the people” as a homogeneous camp and therefore exclude minority groups and disregard their rights of choosing. This can have serious consequences, as independent journalism and the rule of law may be deemed unnecessary if only one group in society has a voice.
While populism can be both right and left, in the context of this blogpost, right-wing populism is more relevant, as meat reduction policy relates to questions of freedom of choice, government intervention, and a food that is deeply rooted in culture and traditions. In addition, left-wing populism is not prominent in the Dutch context.
Which centre or right-wing politician dares to suggest eating less meat to help the environment? Our beloved steak, ribs and pork chops are evidently a controversial and emotionally charged subject. Cases in point from all over Western Europe show how public resistance often follows the proposing of meat reduction policies. For example, proposals for a meatless day in schools or other public institutions caused uproar in countries including France, the UK, and Germany.
Yet, it is unclear what is behind this resistance. Resistance against nation-wide meat reduction policy is particularly hard to study, simply because such policies remain scarce, despite the science on its urgency and the EU’s international commitments.1
Online discussion about the draft of the proposed Dutch Climate Agreement provided a relevant opportunity to study such resistance. Although relatively limited in scope, the draft Agreement included proposals about animal protein reduction. While these proposals mention that the required behavioural change of the population is a “long haul” process and would only include soft interventions, such as an (unspecified) instrument to monitor and compare carbon footprints of food products, right-wing newspaper De Telegraaf responded with the following headline on their front page: “Meat must be rationed. Climate Agreement meddles with Dutch eating customs”, which stimulated a heated discussion on social media.2
Together with Hilje van der Horst, we selected three news articles from right-wing publications posted on Facebook, including by De Telegraaf, and studied the expression of ideologies in the articles and in corresponding Facebook comments.3 The outcomes of the study give rise to a more in-depth discussion of the wider implications of populism for the protein transition. Before discussing the broader relevance, I will briefly outline the findings.
Backlash – Less focus on meat, more on restrictive governance
In the online discussion that was held around the idea to eat meat only two times per week, several ideologies were expressed.4 Statements referring to freedom of choice (“I decide myself!”) and daily meat consumption (“I eat meat 8 days a week”) were overwhelmingly present. Furthermore, such statements were also linked to polarisations between groups; between Us and Them. In this case, Facebook users presented a polarised vision of “the people” versus “the elite”, which is a typical expression of populism.
A striking pattern throughout the analysed Facebook comments was a hostility towards elites, mainly political ones. The Facebook commenters used strong vocabulary to polarise against these elites: “Environmental fascists”, “Climate dictatorship”, “A group of green elite madmen”. This hostility was connected to notions around freedom of choice and an appeal to daily meat consumption and eating what ‘I’ want. They – ‘the elite’ – obstruct the freedom of choice to eat according to Our – ‘the people’s’ – meaty food customs. They want Us to turn to insects and soggy lentil burgers, while They continue to enjoy juicy steaks. Stay away from Our meatball!
Image: The Dutch traditional meatball dish. Credits: Ward van Wanrooij via Flickr, Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic — CC BY-SA 2.0.
A remarkable insight of the study was how reactions to meat reduction policy depend on a broader context of policy in general. The idea that meat is a normal and pleasant part of our food customs is an important aspect of backlash against meat reduction policy. However, the Facebook commenters appeared to be less concerned with the role of meat as such, and more with the fact that the government is attempting to ‘restrict’ or discourage it, bringing up issues of freedom of choice and hostility against elites. This was observed in more general statements about the Dutch government being patronising, meddlesome, and harping. Comparisons of the Netherlands with dictatorships, fascism, and communist countries were also prevalent. This suggests that meat reduction policy is not interpreted purely on its own merits and drawbacks, but is seen as connected to other policies that impact individual lives and customs, such as bans on smoking in public spaces.
Why we should care
You may think: Those Facebook commenters, aren’t they people tucked away in dark lofts, ventilating their frustrations by banging on computer keyboards? What about (sponsored) trolls, bots, or users provoking outrage to receive ‘likes’? It is questionable whether the comments reflect the true beliefs of social media users; perhaps even unlikely. So why should we care? There are actually a few crucial reasons.
Discourse has an impact, regardless of the “realness” of the content of comments and social media accounts. Online discussions are influential in terms of polarisation. A 2019 study published in The Lancet showed that Twitter users that were initially more ambivalent about meat reduction moved to a more sceptical position about such reduction over time.5 Moreover, a systematic review not only found that social and traditional media content is becoming more polarised, but also that exposure to polarised content on social media can aggravate ideological polarisation between people.6 Thus, the sort of Facebook discussion that we studied could potentially lead to more polarisation about meat reduction in wider society.
Another reason points towards the potentially harmful role of populism in environmental governance. Populism has been growing in Western societies.7 It shows its power in various developments, such as measures against the COVID-19 pandemic, and in hampering global cooperation. Earlier research already found that populism is connected to climate change scepticism and hostility towards climate change mitigation policies.8 With meat reduction being such a strategy, our study indicates populism is a huge force to reckon with in the meat transition as well and hence should be studied more closely.
Meat as a political symbol
Looking at populist politicians in the Netherlands, the Twitter behaviour of far conservative party leaders Geert Wilders (Party for Freedom; PVV) 9 and Thierry Baudet (Forum for Democracy; FvD) offers an interesting observation; the leaders seem to use meat as a symbol for people-centrality and to discredit incumbent politicians.10 Wilders tweets about meatballs and Dutch cuisine – meat, potatoes, vegetables – while Thierry Baudet proposes an “all-meat week” in response to the central government tweeting about the nation-wide Week Without Meat initiative and supports the carnivore diet.11 Strikingly, in response to a proposed inquiry of the government about the effectiveness and feasibility of a meat tax, Wilders portrays the meat tax as a burden on the people and Baudet portrays it as part of the “Great Reset” 12 – a conspiracy theory.13
This way of communicating to citizens is not only seen in Europe, but also across the Atlantic Ocean. While Donald Trump openly questioned the accuracy of climate change science on Twitter and thus also policies to mitigate climate change, the right-wing press that supported Trump generally frames climate change mitigation strategy, and meat reduction specifically, as a harmful imposition on people’s freedom. For instance, Fox News misreported Joe Biden’s climate policy as if he wanted to allow the American people only one burger per month. Moreover, Republican politicians are increasingly bringing (plant-based) meat into the “culture wars”.14 If meat becomes a symbol of the interests of “the people”, support for the meat transition and its required policies may be seriously harmed.
The politics of support for meat reduction policy
The question pops up whether meat reduction policy really goes against the general will of the people. What does public opinion actually say? Looking at a population-based survey report commissioned by ProVeg Netherlands (an organisation that describes its aim as halving the current consumption of animals by 2040), there might actually be wide public support for policy to steer consumers away from meat. While an overwhelming majority (85%) sees consumption of animal foods as a personal choice, a majority (77%) also supports government policy to steer dietary choices, or even prohibiting the use of animals for food altogether (13%).15
The report specifically looks at differences in political orientation, which offers two relevant insights. To start with, there seems to be a divide between conservative and right-wing adherents on the one hand, and progressive and left-wing adherents on the other, which is consistent with scientific literature.16 ,17 Survey results show that voters for right-wing, conservative parties are more inclined to oppose meat reduction policies compared to voters for left-wing, progressive parties.18 Moreover, voters for right-wing populist parties seem most negative about meat reduction (policy), which aligns with our study pointing towards populism as an important dimension in backlash against meat reduction policy.19 Thus, opposition against the meat tax does not seem to reflect the “vox populi” but rather only that of conservative and right-wing populist groups in Dutch society.
However, and that brings me to the second relevant insight that, even though right-wing populist adherents are overall less supportive of meat reduction policies, there is still a serious level of support within these groups, depending on the type of policy measure. Whilst voters for populist parties (i.e., PVV and FvD) are on average more against the government ‘meddling’ with food consumption than voters for other parties, a sizeable proportion is nevertheless in support of the government steering consumption patterns. More specifically, a large minority agrees with the statements that livestock should be decreased (24 and 42%, respectively for PVV and FvD voters), food innovations such as cultured meat should be stimulated (47 and 47%), and promotion of animal products should be restricted (40 and 47%). Also, one in four voters is supportive of increasing the price of meat (25 and 24%). Strikingly, two measures – a ban on the discounting of animal-based products and increased availability of plant-based products in restaurants and supermarkets – even get the support of the majority of these two groups. Although these results are based on just one survey, commissioned by an interest group, the outcomes are promising with regards to successfully gaining support for the meat transition from the wider public in the Dutch context.20
Slowing down societal meat reduction
It is quite shocking therefore, how the involvement of populism in societal meat reduction has serious consequences, slowing it down. To stick with the case of the Netherlands, Dutch populist party PVV filed a motion to stop the above mentioned inquiry on a meat tax, which was accepted by the majority of the House of Representatives, including two of four parties of the current Cabinet, and halted the inquiry. Strikingly, generally the same division of right-wing conservative versus left-wing progressive could be seen amongst representatives in the House, as compared to voters in the ProVeg report, with the first voting for and the latter voting against the motion. This indicates the parties do seem to accurately represent the interests of the majority of their followers.
Additionally, where research has shown that fear of public backlash is an important explanation for the global paucity of meat reduction policy,21 a Dutch NGO showed that actual backlash makes the government even more hesitant and fearful to act.22 In developing a national campaign to help the Dutch decrease their carbon footprints, the suggestion to eat less meat was purposely removed in April 2019 before its launch. The NGO published released governmental email correspondence which showed eating less meat would be too “politically sensitive”. The secretary defended it, claiming “calls for reducing meat consumption evoked a lot of discussion in that period”. More recently, it has emerged that the De Telegraaf article was the reason for the minister to ban ‘less meat’ from the campaign, fearing it would otherwise harm the support for the Climate Agreement. This clearly shows the impact that such (online) discussions – in which notions of populism are expressed – can have on governmental decision-making.
Dealing with anti-elitism
Moving forward, it is vital to take the dimension of populism in the meat transition seriously. Dutch politicians use meat as a symbol to fuel an anti-elitist sentiment, hurting the transition. Also, it looks like “public” resistance predominantly comes from right-wing populist groups in society. The evidence that points towards the resistant group being a minority of the population would suggest the government might have social approval to intervene more vigorously. However, considering a mere inquiry into a meat tax was already halted, as instigated by a populist party, we should think about other paths forward. What can be done to circumvent populism, most notably the hostility against elites? This is quite a challenge, as any top-down designed strategy or policy might be interpreted as ‘taking away Our meat’.
While populism is a serious threat to liberal democracy, it is important to take into account that voters for populist parties are not always populist themselves, but are probably mostly dissatisfied with the government. Opposition to meat reduction policies does not come out of the blue, but is likely linked to, for instance, a perceived existential threat (e.g., with livestock farmers) or a perceived ‘cultural distance’ from politicians, resulting in people challenging the legitimacy of policies.23 What if we take the concerns and needs of such resistant groups seriously when designing environmental policy? While more intrusive policies, such as a meat tax, seem inevitable if we are to meet environmental targets, they might severely impact people living on lower budgets – unfairly, because these people generally have a much smaller carbon footprint than more affluent people. This is especially important when considering how current times of inflation, with food, energy, and other consumer goods rapidly increasing in price, are having a tremendous impact on the lives of people with lower socio-economic positions. Therefore, we need meat reduction policies that unmistakeably maintain, or preferably even improve, people’s quality of living and help them with their food needs, such as lowering taxes on fruits, vegetables, and meat replacers. As seen above, policies that involve supermarkets and restaurants seem more promising in terms of wide public support, regardless of political orientation. This shows there is a role for businesses to promote, normalise, and facilitate eating less meat. In terms of research, more scientific population-based research on resistance against meat curtailment policies, and its determinants, is necessary. A burning question that remains is how to design much-needed, intrusive measures that do not incite an anti-elitist response, as well as what the real implications of such a response are. Also, we need a better qualitative understanding of why most resistance comes from adherents of right-wing populist parties.
Unfortunately, we haven’t found the holy grail. Hopefully, raising aware of the importance of populism is already a critical step towards less resistance against meat reduction policy.
Bailey, R., Froggatt, A., & Wellesley, L. (2014). Livestock–climate change’s forgotten sector. Chatham House.
Dhont, K., & Hodson, G. (2014). Why do right-wing adherents engage in more animal exploitation and meat consumption? Personality and Individual Differences, 64, 12–17.
van Dijk, T. A. (2006). Ideology and discourse analysis. Journal of Political Ideologies, 11 (2), 115–140.
van Dijk, T. A. (2011). Discourse and ideology. In T. van Dijk (Ed.), Discourse studies: A multidisciplinary introduction (pp. 379–407). London: Sage.
Forchtner, B., Kroneder, A., & Wetzel, D. (2018). Being skeptical? Exploring far-right climate-change communication in Germany. Environmental Communication, 12(5), 589–604.
Garcia, D., Galaz, V., & Daume, S. (2019). EATLancet vs yes2meat: The digital backlash to the planetary health diet. The Lancet, 394(10215), 2153–2154.
Huber, R. A. (2020). The role of populist attitudes in explaining climate change skepticism and support for environmental protection. Environmental Politics, 29(6), 959–982.
Hoffarth, M. R., & Hodson, G. (2016). Green on the outside, red on the inside: Perceived environmentalist threat as a factor explaining political polarization of climate change. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 45, 40–49.
Kubin, E., & von Sikorski, C. (2021). The role of (social) media in political polarization: A systematic review. Annals of the International Communication Association, 1–19.
Lockwood, M. (2018). Right-wing populism and the climate change agenda: Exploring the linkages. Environmental Politics, 27(4), 712–732.
Michielsen, Y.J.E., & van der Horst, H.M. (2022). Backlash against Meat Curtailment Policies in online discourse: Populism as a missing link. Appetite, 171, 105931
Morris, C., Kirwan, J., & Lally, R. (2014). Less meat initiatives: An initial exploration of a diet-focused social innovation in transitions to a more sustainable regime of meat provisioning. International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food, 21(2), 189–208.
Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, C. R. (2017). Populism: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Noordzij, K., de Koster, W., & van der Waal, J. (2021). “They don’t know what it’s like to be at the bottom”: Exploring the role of perceived cultural distance in less‐educated citizens’ discontent with politicians. The British Journal of Sociology, 72(3), 566-579.
Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2019). Cultural backlash: Trump, Brexit, and authoritarian populism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pechey, R., Reynolds, J. P., Cook, B., Marteau, T. M., & Jebb, S. A. (2022). Acceptability of policies to reduce consumption of red and processed meat: A population-based survey experiment. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 81, 101817.
Rust, N. A., Ridding, L., Ward, C., Clark, B., Kehoe, L., Dora, M., & West, N. (2020). How to transition to reduced-meat diets that benefit people and the planet. The Science of the Total Environment, 718, 137–208.
- 1Rust et al. (2020); also see reports of the Changing Markets Foundation ‘High Steaks: How focusing on agriculture can ensure the EU meets its methane-reduction goals’ (2022) and ‘Growing the Good: The case for low-carbon transition in the food sector’ (2018).
- 2Regarding changing Dutch protein consumption, the main goal that the Climate Council proposes is to turn the current animal:plant protein ratio in the average Dutch diet from 60:40 to 40:60 by the year 2050. To achieve this, people should consume more fruits and vegetables, the proportion of plant-based protein in diets should increase, and the overall protein consumption should be reduced 10 to 15%. Also, the climate friendliness of food products should be made accessible to the public, by means of an instrument that monitors and compares the carbon footprint of such products. Another concrete action speaks to supermarkets, who should stimulate the purchase of climate friendly products by positioning these as the ‘easiest and most common choice’.
- 3Michielsen & van der Horst (2022); We used the framework of ideology by Teun van Dijk (2006; 2011), who defines ideologies as ‘foundational beliefs that underlie the shared social representations of specific kinds of social groups’ (van Dijk, 2006, p. 119), which ‘will influence their interpretation of social events and situations and control their discourse and other social practices as group members’ (van Dijk, 2011, p. 380).
- 4In the current blogpost, I highlight the “thin” ideology of populism. However, populism was predominantly connected, and interlocked, with two other “full” ideologies present in the corpus: carnism and neoliberalism. Carnism may be understood as the ideology underlying meat consumption and as the opposite of veganism; it is normal, natural, necessary, and nice to eat meat. Neoliberalism, as understood from a consumer perspective, relates to individual freedom of choice and the idea that governments should not interfere with people’s individual affairs. See Michielsen & van der Horst (2022) for more extensive definitions and what they are based on.
- 5Garcia et al. (2019)
- 6See systematic review of Kubin & von Sikorski (2021). One study by Chang & Park even found real-world consequences; social media use was connected to people joining polarised political protests.
- 7Norris & Inglehart (2019)
- 8Huber (2020); Lockwood (2018); Forchtner et al. (2018). While Lockwood (2018) and Forchtner et al. (2018) focused on right-wing populism, Huber (2020) looked at populism in general, thus both left- and right-wing populism. For climate scepticism and support for environmental protection measures, he only found differences between people with populist and non-populist attitudes, with the former being more sceptical and less supportive. He did not find differences between left- and right-wing populism.
- 9Norris & Inglehart (2019) classified PVV (Party for Freedom) as one of seven major authoritarian-populist parties in Western Europe between 2000-2015 in their extensive study on Authoritarian Populism. The classification is based on authoritarian values (security, conventionism, loyalty) and populist rhetoric (anti-establishment, vox populi).
- 10Political parties in the multi-party system of the Netherlands are differently categorised compared to other countries. In this blogpost, I follow KiesKompas in their categorisation of parties. They use two axes to create a political landscape: progressive-conservative and left-right. The axis left-right is about socio-economic, material subjects, such as work and tax money distribution. The axis progressive-conservative is about socio-cultural, immaterial issues, such as ethics, immigration, and the environment. Left parties endorse an active role for government in the economy, being responsible for the wellbeing of its citizens in socio-economic terms; right parties endorse a modest government role in regulating economies and stress economic freedom, lower taxes, and market mechanisms. Progressive parties underscore personal freedoms in socio-cultural issues, such as soft drug policy, which is contrary to conservative parties, who emphasise the importance of community, traditional norms, values, and institutions. Currently, most Dutch political parties are characterised as either right-conservative or left-progressive. Only two parties deviate from this categorisation and are seen as left-conservative, of which PVV is one. This is because PVV has both left and right viewpoints, but overall, tends slightly more to the left. The party stands up for citizens with a lower socio-economic position, though only for the ones with original Dutch descent. The party is negative about immigration, the multicultural society – specifically related to Islam – and the European Union. As such, PVV represents people that feel both economically and culturally threatened (see KiesKompas). This is somewhat confusing, as in many industrialised market-based countries (e.g., the UK), right is often treated as virtually synonymous with conservative, and left with progressive. In addition, in the Dutch media, the PVV is mostly portrayed as a right-wing or right-populist party; most probably because over time, the party has moved from the right-wing to a centre left position (between 2017 and 2021; see KiesKompas). International media portray PVV as extreme or populist right. Thus, while PVV is technically a centre left party, I treat it a right-wing conservative party for above mentioned reasons.
- 11The tweets translate as “Couscous, no way. Long live the #meatball!”, “Dutch Cuisine. Nothing tastes better.”, “No way. I think that we as #FVD should install an all-meat week!”, respectively.
- 12Tweet translations are “Meat tax, flight tax, stop with that #taxterror! Give the people substantial compensation for the high inflation, through-the-roof energy bill and expensive groceries instead of all those useless extra tax increases!” and “This is all part of the Great Reset, exactly as I predict in the #coronadeceit”, respectively.
- 13The Great Reset conspiracy theory believes that a proposal of the World Economic Forum on how to sustainably rebuild the world economy after the COVID-19 pandemic is a cover for rolling out “radical policies such as forced vaccinations, digital ID cards and the renunciation of private property.”
- 14See articles of Vox and The Washington Post for relevant analyses in the USA context.
- 15The survey was designed and conducted by VU University and KiesKompas (2022), and included 8,575 respondents. The data are representative in terms of voting behaviour, sex, age, education, and ethnicity.
- 16Note that these differences are not tested for statistical significance. The report only shows percentages of respondents (not) agreeing with a statement.
- 17The association between right-wing ideology and meat consumption, opposition against meat reduction initiatives, and climate change mitigation policies has been widely studied (Dhont & Hodson, 2014; Hoffarth & Hodson, 2016; Morris et al., 2014).
- 18Comparing right-wing parties PVV (see footnote 9 about the categorisation of PVV), FvD, SGP versus left-wing parties PvdD, GroenLinks, PvdA (based on political landscape of KiesKompas).
- 19Overall, all meat reduction policies get support of the majority of the voters. For PVV and FvD, only two meat reduction policies get support of the majority of voters. For non-populist, but right-wing conservative parties VVD and CDA, this counts for seven and eight policies, respectively. For left-wing progressive parties (D66, GroenLinks, PvdA, PvdD, ChristenUnie, SP), all policies get support of the majority of voters. One exception is the reformatory party SGP, also right-wing and conservative, but not clearly populist (although the scientific institute related to the party published a book in which Wilders and Baudet are called ‘allies’). Only three policies get support of the majority of voters for SGP.
- 20In the UK context, Pechey et al. (2022) tested acceptability for six meat reduction policies and none of them could count on support of the majority of all participants. Increasing the price of meat (27%) and banning advertisements (26%) even got the lowest support. This shows much more research on support for meat reduction policy is necessary.
- 21Bailey and colleagues already wrote in 2014 that fear of backlash explains the sparcity of meat reduction policy.
- 22The Dutch NGO is ‘Wakker Dier’, who present themselves as a non-subsidised organisation representing the interests of animals in the livestock industry.
- 23See Noordzij et al. (2020), who have shown how lower educated people in the Netherlands are more often dissatisfied with politicians, because they perceive politicians as culturally distant “others” being insensitive to the circumstances of “common” people.