What's the beef? Debating meat, matters of concern and the emergence of online issue publics

Damian Maye, John Fellenor, Clive Potter, Julie Urquhart, Julie Barnett

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A number of recent scientific publications have called for significant reductions in meat consumption in order to mitigate the negative impacts of the food system on the planet. Public debate around this issue is not straightforward, however, with plant-based and alternative-protein narratives contested by an agro-ecological narrative. These competing narratives are being played out in both scientific and public discourses, with social media emerging as an important vehicle. Seeking to understand the nature of the ‘online issue publics’ forming around this issue, the paper draws on an analysis of Twitter data to assess ‘sustainable meat’ narratives as ‘matters of concern’ (Latour, 2004, 2018), rooted in the discrepant views, disputes and disagreements that typically coalesce around such issues. To this end, #sustainablemeat AND #ethicalmeat, and #eatlessmeat hashtags, respectively, were compared, as examples of debating meat. Two key insights emerged. Firstly, there is limited evidence of an encompassing debate on Twitter; #eatlessmeat tweets generated more frequent mentions and greater heterogeneity of content than #sustainablemeat tweets. Secondly, the prominence of commercially invested users using Twitter for marketing purposes; #sustainablemeat tweets were orientated toward promoting a business or the production of meat, whereas #eatlessmeat tweets showed a greater association with planetary issues and an evolution of the ‘vegan’ narrative. Individuals and organisations who are already invested in an issue use specialist hashtags. Specific ‘sustainable meat’ narratives on Twitter signal the multiplicity of debates that currently surround this contested issue which, as ‘matters of concern’, is still in the early stages of development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)134-146
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Rural Studies
Early online date19 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2021


  • Debating meat
  • Matters of concern
  • Online issue publics
  • Twitter hashtags

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Sociology and Political Science


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