Young child cuddling a lamb at a farm Children were more likely than adults to see farm animals as deserving of protection and care. - Media Credit: Adobe Stock

Kids Consider Eating Meat ‘Less Morally Acceptable’ Than Adults Do, Study Finds

Kids were also less likely to hold speciesist attitudes, referring to the belief that animals are worth more or less depending on their species

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3 Minutes Read

Children are less likely to perceive animals as food, according to a just-published study. And, as a result, kids generally consider eating meat as “less morally acceptable” than adults do, researchers say.

The research – published in peer-reviewed academic journal Social Psychological and Personality Science – aimed to assess speciesism across age groups, including people’s opinions on how various animal species should be treated.

Researchers surveyed 479 people, including children (aged nine to 11-years-old), young adults (18 to 21), and adults (29 to 59-years-old).

They discovered that children were less likely to see a moral hierarchy between humans and non-human animals. Younger participants were also less likely than adults to categorize farm animals as food, believing that animals like pigs deserve better treatment.

“Our findings suggest we need to consider how we talk to children about humans’ relationship with non-human animals,” explained lead author Luke McGuire of the University of Exeter. “Children are motivated to consider harm against the natural world, including animals, and as such we might want to consider beginning these discussions about food decisions early in life.”

‘Moral double standards’

A child patting a cow on the head on a farm
Adobe Stock Many people label themselves as animal-lovers, despite consuming animal products frequently.

The results suggest that humans are not born with the mental processes used to justify meat consumption. Rather, they are learned over time from various social settings, with parents and older family members often setting the standard for which animal meats are “acceptable” to eat (typically, cow and chicken meat, for example), and which are not (companion animals, such as cats).

“People regularly hold ethical values that contradict each other and employ moral double standards,” the study reads. It highlights that despite widespread appreciation for pets, concern for wild animals, and contributions to animal welfare charities, “many people also accept great harm to some animals. For example, people readily justify cruel treatment that often happens in factory farming,” the study says.

Opportunity to fight climate crisis

A child feeding a sheep a pastry
Adobe Stock Speaking to children about animals’ involvement in the food system could help shape more sustainable diets.

McGuire continued: “As with all social psychological processes, it is worth stepping back to consider where these attitudes and cognitions come from. Critically examining our relationship with animals ought to be a primary goal of tackling climate change and one that begins in childhood.”

A growing bank of research is unearthing connections between animal agriculture, especially beef production, and the accelerating climate crisis.

One January study found that replacing animal protein with plant-based foods could cut food-related emissions by 61 percent. Reducing meat and dairy production can also help protect wild animals, save water, and free up vast amounts of land.

“Human food production and consumption are related to timely global issues like climate change,” McGuire’s recent study on speciesism reads. “Attempts to mitigate these global problems might benefit from open dialogues regarding our relationships with animals.”

“The evidence presented here suggests these dialogues ought to begin in youth when the social construction of the way humans think about animals begins.”

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The Author

Jemima Webber

Jemima is the editor of Plant Based News. Aside from writing about climate and animal rights issues, she studied songwriting in London and psychology in Newcastle, Australia (where she was born).

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t.conway1
t.conway1
1 month ago

An important study– confirming what we all know. I’ve had several experiences over the decades being in omnivore restaurants (finding whatever i could for my vegan self) and overhearing little children, often as little as 4 yrs or so, complaining and arguing with their parents that they don’t want to eat animals, and instead of listening to the child’s superior sense of morality the parents essentially bully the little one into eating their animal friend’s body parts. Insane, immoral, unconscionable.

Rowland Ross
Rowland Ross
1 month ago
Reply to  t.conway1

It’s quite simply a question of exposure. Children who grow up in the countryside and on farms witness the death animals on a regular basis ( both wild and domestic ) and have few qualms about eating animal foods. The only exposure that urban children have to animals are usually pets which are seen as cuddly and part of the family. The child does not have a superior sense of morality but is simply acting according to it’s emotions

There is nothing morally wrong with using animals for food, they have always been a part of the human food chain, and for multi- millions across the globe, are a means of survival.

t.conway1
t.conway1
1 month ago
Reply to  Rowland Ross

“Thou shalt not kill” — any sentient being unnecessarily. It’s not true that “they have always been part of the human food chain”– numerous societies such as huge populations of Buddhist East Asia and Vaisnava Hindu India refused to consume animal flesh. There are entire books detailing numerous other societies and circles of societies that abdicated from exploiting / killing animals for food.
I grant that for some remote and small-populated pastoralist/herder societies and hunter-societies, yes animals-for-food has been a “means of survival.” But it’s certainly not necessary for some 6 billion and more humans today, living in societies where plant-food meal-choices are ample and cheap.
Btw, addressing your earlier sentence, there are all sorts of vegans who grew up on farms where animals were bred and killed, and many of them have confessed to long-suppressing from childhood their feelings of dread and horror over witnessing (or participating in) the killing of their fellow sentient beings.

Rowland Ross
Rowland Ross
1 month ago
Reply to  t.conway1

Only one question needs to be answered. Is it wrong for humans to eat animal foods? Only a yes or no answere is required.

t.conway1
t.conway1
1 month ago
Reply to  Rowland Ross

Yes, it’s wrong for any number of reasons, starting with the ethical imperative to do the least harm. But, as mentioned in my prior reply, for certain relatively smaller societies in the developing world, animal food may be key to their survival.

Rowland Ross
Rowland Ross
1 month ago
Reply to  t.conway1

You failed to read the question correctly! I said “humans” not some humans. Try again.

Holger Lundstrom
Holger Lundstrom
27 days ago

Kids also don’t like looking for cars before crossing a street. That’s boring, and we shouldn’t do it. Kids also love to eat sweets for lunch, I am sure there is wisdom in that. We should all make sure that our food has a very high sugar content, so it will taste better. Oh and coffee is disgusting and not made for human consumption. According to kids. So stop drinking coffee, I guess?

Plant Based News Moderator
Plant Based News Moderator
26 days ago

Hi Holger, thanks for your comment. The main difference is sweets are not sentient beings that we teach children to love some of, but eat others. The wisdom here is that children are innately compassionate- they love dogs and they love cows and chickens before they’re taught that for no good reason we kill cows and chickens but protect dogs. Take a young child to a slaughterhouse and they will be horrified, but if someone tells them it is a necessary part of life they will learn to distance and desensitize themselves from it- what if they learned it’s not necessary? We’re causing that harm for no reason? We can learn from children’s compassion.

Rowland Ross
Rowland Ross
26 days ago

Interesting? For the best part of 6 million years animal foods have been an essential part of the hominin diet ( and still are for millions across the globe ) until in 1944 somebody produces a supplement and all of a sudden a tiny minority of the population deem it to be wrong.

Plant Based News Moderator
Plant Based News Moderator
22 days ago
Reply to  Rowland Ross

Hi Rowland,

Not sure what supplement you believe was produced in 1944 that made people realize they didn’t need to eat animals?

We have not been breeding animals by the trillions for 6 million years. It isn’t even actually relevant whether or not we’ve been eating animals for a long time, the point is now we have absolutely no necessity.

Rowland Ross
Rowland Ross
22 days ago

Vit B12.

Strange that you think I agree with breeding animals by the trillion. I’ve been fighting “ ALL industrial agriculture for the last 50yrs”. Not just animal Ag.

It’ not right or wrong to eat any food, it’s up to the individual, providing it can be produced sustainably which in nearly all cases in todays society it can’t.

Not necessary to eat animal foods? A view not shared by the majority of the world population so it’s a matter of choice.

All of the healthiest societies in the world consume animal foods to a greater or lesser extent.

Plant Based News Moderator
Plant Based News Moderator
21 days ago
Reply to  Rowland Ross

The only way to feed our current population animal foods is by breeding animals by the trillions.
Interesting, the animals don’t get a choice, do they?

All the healthiest societies in the world consume 95-100% plant based diets.

Holger Lundstrom
Holger Lundstrom
22 days ago

Thanks for your answer, but the argument is still moot. Take anybody to a slaughterhouse, and they will most likely be disgusted. It’s the nature of the beast, literally. But just because children do it, doesn’t make it any more plausible or correct.

You say that “we” can learn from children’s compassion, but you really just mean everybody who eats animal products. And what they should “learn” is what you want them to – namely to do what you do, because for some reason you’re sure that’s the right thing for everyone. So basically all you’re saying is “look, children do what I do, so clearly it’s the right thing, and you have to do it as well.”

All in all, it’s a cheap argument and you didn’t manage to defend it to any degree either.

Rowland Ross
Rowland Ross
22 days ago

Excellent reply!

Plant Based News Moderator
Plant Based News Moderator
21 days ago

Hi Holger,

Anyone is disgusted by a slaughterhouse because it is disgusting what we do to animals. There is no necessity. Why continue the mass suffering without any need?
We can learn from children’s compassion, we teach them to be kind to some animals and simultaneously teach them its okay to pay for the deaths of others. Children haven’t been indoctrinated enough to accept that speciesism, so of course they do not want to eat some animals and love others. They are correct.
It’s not just us that’s sure a plant based diet is right, it’s the fact that animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, fresh water usage, water pollution, and is responsible for killing trillions of animals annually. Plus scientific consensus that a plant based diet is not only suitable for all ages but can protect against some chronic disease.

Holger Lundstrom
Holger Lundstrom
8 days ago

Very subjective and emotional arguments, you are not helping your point at all. Indeed you continue to prove my point.

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