Meat Your Persona: a travelling exhibition
Lucy Yates, Public Engagement Coordinator for the multi-disciplinary Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP) research programme talks us through the development, delivery, and what was learnt from creating a national touring installation to support the public to engage with the environmental and health impacts of meat eating.
Hello, my name’s Lucy Yates and since 2018 I’ve been the Public Engagement Coordinator for LEAP (which stands for Livestock, Environment and People), a multi-disciplinary research project set up to ‘understand the health, environmental, social and economic effects of meat and dairy production’. When I joined the project there had already been a range of public engagement activity from taking part in family events at the Natural History Museum in London to Science Festivals in Oxford and Cheltenham. Researchers had already experienced some more traditional forms of engagement but I thought it was important to broaden our reach in order to include audiences who might not necessarily be seeking our content out and who also had lower science capital or less included in science.
If you’d like a quick way to find out what we did, then click here to watch our film on the pilot of Meat Your Persona in the Westgate Shopping Centre in 2019 or click here to watch our film about the national tour of Meat Your Persona that ran in 2021.
What were our aims?
I was also struck by YouGov research commissioned by the Eating Better Foundation. In April 2017, only 31% people surveyed said they agreed with the statement, ‘Producing and consuming meat has a significant negative impact on the environment’. The rest (69%) didn’t know, disagreed, or neither agreed or disagreed. To me this meant that only a small proportion of people understood that meat was linked to significant environmental damage. It was clear that there was a large gap in public knowledge around the impact of meat production and consumption. That helped to define a further public engagement priority for LEAP which was to talk to people in large numbers.
I wanted to do something that would reach a large number of people and would be exciting and dynamic, so, after I negotiated a stand in the Westgate Shopping Centre in Oxford, I approached public engagement consultancy, The Liminal Space (click here to find out more about Liminal Space), to come on board and design the experience for us. What would help engage the public passing through a busy shopping centre, nipping between Cos and Cath Kidston, and get them to suddenly consider meat and the impact it has on health and the environment?
How did it work?
In the picture above you can see an installation by Bistro In Vitro designed to spark discussion around In Vitro technology. This is one of the images Liminal Space brought as a prompt to the workshop they ran in May 2019 in order to define purpose and content with our academics and to inspire researchers with the possibilities of public engagement. One researcher said, ‘I hadn’t really thought what public engagement could look like.’ The workshop gave the very clear message that it could be ‘interactive and fun’ and also allowed researchers to distil the key messages from their work that they wanted to share with the visitors to the shopping centre.
In the above image you can see our stand in the Westgate Shopping Centre. Liminal Space then took information from our researchers to design a three step process to support researchers on the stand to have non-judgemental conversations about meat eating and the health and environmental impacts of this.
- STEP 1 - CHOOSE YOUR PLATE PROFILE: what does mealtime look like for you?
- STEP 2 - FIND THE RIGHT WORDS: how would you describe your meat eating?
- STEP 3 - MAKE YOUR CHOICES: what you would rather live without?
One of the challenges but also the strengths was that LEAP is a multi-disciplinary science research project. This meant we had a wide range of content to bring together in a coherent way. It also presented a challenge for researchers on the stand when talking to the public as they were naturally used to being quizzed in detail within their very specific academic areas but suddenly the public didn’t particularly mind if you were an atmospheric physicist working on a better metric to factor in the impact of methane, they would ask you questions about diets and health as well.
One of the very useful benefits of this activity in the Westgate was that very early on it really promoted cross research group working. The research team collaborated to produce a document that meant that any scientist was able to answer questions across the project with confidence. This also led to dedicated researcher sessions where people presented their on-going work to colleagues as suddenly there was a very direct impetus for researchers to make sure they were up to date with the full range of LEAP research.
In one week in June we had 60,000 direct visit to Leiden Square, the area where our stand was, although of course not everyone who visited will have interacted with us directly but the eye-catching graphics meant that the visual content and printed information will still have given people food for thought. We had 3,728 direct hits on our website during the week of the event.
So, what did we learn? Well, firstly researchers were surprised that people were open to discussing the subject and were willing to have relatively long conversations.
It was also useful for researchers to gain a wider sense of how the public viewed some of the broader context of the issues LEAP was investigating. For example, people were often keen to discuss animal welfare, something that the LEAP research project didn’t really focus on but this made us aware of this and then we were able to consider whether it was possible to add a research strand which might speak more directly to that issue in the future.
One researcher, Anika Knuppel, was inspired to consider focusing on boys and men who were reliant on meat to obtain protein for exercise as a cohort as she’d had multiple conversations with people who fell into this category.
Scientists also learnt more about how the public viewed their meat eating. The engagement with the fun meat eating categories Liminal Space had invented, such as Alfresco-tarian (you only eat meat when you go out), suggested that the range of different ways people eat meat and how people describe this is poorly captured. Keren Papier, one of our epidemiologists who participated in Meat Your Persona, is now setting up a large-scale study to investigate what exactly people who identify with different labels, such as flexitarian, are actually eating.
But after the Westgate we were still keen to reach more people and we were lucky enough to secure funding from the Wellcome Trust to take a new version of Meat Your Persona on a national tour. We knew for the new iteration we wanted to reach even larger numbers and we also knew from work Cristina Stewart, a researcher in the Nuffield Department of Primary Health Care Sciences, was doing on the National Diet and Nutrition Survey that we wanted to target men as generally they eat the most meat. We also wanted to make sure that we were involving those in the conversation who were often less included.
We also knew from the Eating Better Foundation’s YouGov survey that meat eating beliefs corresponded with other identities – if you didn’t agree or understand that meat eating caused environmental damage, you were more likely to be from the North, to have voted for Brexit, to vote Conservative. We chose tour locations carefully with this in mind.
So, what would a new version look like for our academics? In Sept 2020, Liminal Spaces did two workshops with researchers to gather up learning from the previous version, catch up with new LEAP research and to understand researchers’ priorities for public engagement.
This led to condensing the focus and turning each major research area outlined by the team into five key questions designed to engage the public and provoke thought. This then was shaped into a quiz (click here to take a look at the quiz) that at the end would give people a tailored persona that offered insight into their meat consumption and its impact, and, if people were interested, you could also get advice on meat reduction, including practical recipe cards for plant-based meals. You can see one of the questions on the pillar in the photo above: ‘ How often do you eat meat?’ This particular question spoke to the research of our behavioural psychology team. If you answered, ‘Most days,’ for example, then you’d could also see information from our research which put that level of meat eating in context, [‘Meat intake has decreased by an average of 12g per person per day between 2008 and 2017, but we’re still eating an average of 92g per day!’]
Because we wanted to bring the research to people in large numbers and at a wider range of locations we were faced with having less of a researcher presence on the stand. This led to careful conversations with Liminal Space about the key bits of research to include and we also made sure that the Tour Coordinator, Rachel Ashwanden, was able to spend significant time with the LEAP research team in order to really be able to embed into the research and then to share this with her team who would be staffing the tour. At least one researcher came to each of the six venues.
So, what did we achieve?
Well, we learnt a lot about how people wanted to engage and how effective we could be. Over 100,000 people directly engaged with Meat Your Persona (MYP) around the UK. Over half the people who engaged were working class (self -defined at 56%) and, nearly a quarter of all participants (24%) were male and defined themselves as working class.
Of the people we talked to, 81% of frequent meat eaters (i.e., ate meat most days last week) agreed that they had learnt something new about how eating meat can impact the environment and health. 81% of frequent meat eaters also said they were given ideas on how to reduce meat they eat. 75% of frequent meat eaters said they were going to talk about MYP with family and friends, while 66% of frequent meat eaters said they were going to reduce their meat consumption in the future.
We were delighted to find that many of the people we talked to were open to reducing the amount of meat they ate but we were also made aware of significant barriers to change as many said they lacked time, money or knowledge of how to eat differently. The recipe cards offering inspiration for plant-based alternatives to cook were the most popular take-away from Meat Your Persona.
It was also interesting to note that of the six different requests for systemic change we offered people a chance to sign up to, the most popular was for ‘Supermarkets to sell cheaper meat free alternatives’, which was chosen by 18% of people who responded. These findings we have assembled into a two-pager for policy-makers, click here to read the policy paper.
And what did we learn?
Well, an excellent example of this is our researcher, Cristina Stewart, who said that having attended MYP in Glasgow she’d had several conversations with people who said they don’t eat meat, only chicken. This corresponded with her recently published paper, which showed an overall decline in red meat consumption, while chicken consumption had increased. This made her consider that, going forward, more public engagement is needed to emphasise that white meat is still meat (yes, it may have less of an environmental impact than red meat, but it’s still considerably higher than plant-based sources of protein).
One of the researchers who’d attended commented, ‘Our research is obvious to us. It’s in the news but speaking to people, it’s good to be reminded that our range isn’t necessarily as wide as we might assume it is!’ The benefits of putting researchers in touch with the public are sometimes hard to capture and change into metrics but they are significant, in particular for the way in which public priorities inform and shape future research and, in turn, that our academics are more confident about framing their research in ways which make sense for the public.
Thanks to Lucy Yates for writing this case study.