Don't call kids picky eaters – they may have a good reason behind their food preferences. A new study examined how our perceptions of food and animals change as we age, analyzing how kids look at food and its relationship to animals. In general, kids view animals as food far less than adults do, suggesting that children believe that eating meat and dairy is “less morally acceptable.” By examining people’s relationship to food, the study investigates when during our lifespan, eating meat becomes acceptable.

Published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, researchers from the Univesity of Exeter set out to examine “speciesism” – the assumption of human superiority to animals – across different age groups. The research team surveyed 479 people ranging from age nine to 59. The participants were then separated into three age groups: Children (ages nine to 11), young adults (ages 18 to 21), and adults (ages 29 to 59).

The study concluded that compared to young adults and adults, children were far less likely to consider farm animals as food. The youngest children also believed farm animals should be treated better and expressed their belief that eating meat is less acceptable. The study suggests that people are not born believing it is acceptable to eat meat, but rather begin to eat meat through social conditioning.

“Our findings suggest we need to consider how we talk to children about humans’ relationship with non-human animals,” Lead Author Luke McGuire said. “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.”

The study also notes how different animals are categorized as food and others as pets, highlighting how younger children do not inherently see farm animals as food. The justification for meat consumption comes from society, meaning that by boosting information about plant-based foods, younger generations could move away from animal consumption.

“People regularly hold ethical values that contradict each other and employ moral double standards,” the study reads. “Many people also accept great harm to some animals. For example, people readily justify cruel treatment that often happens in factory farming. Hence, people care strongly for some animal species and (at least tacitly) simultaneously endorse the maltreatment of others.”

Younger Generations Could Provide the Solution For Climate Change

The University of Exeter’s study joins a growing body of research that reveals that the younger generation cares more about sustainability and animal welfare than older generations. Another study from The Food Institute found that 65 percent of Gen Z’ers want a more plant-forward diet. Between animal welfare and growing environmental concerns, the younger generation is more likely to hold the animal agriculture industry accountable for these damages.

More people than ever currently eat plant-based for the environment. One survey found that 48 percent of people eat plant-based for the environment, and recently, more people have taken up the title of climatarian – a person whose diet is determined by the climate crisis. Another survey found that 55 percent of consumers now consider sustainability when shopping at the grocery store.

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

With new information about younger generations, prioritizing plant-based and sustainable eating is more possible than ever. Even eating a partly plant-based diet could save nearly 500 species from extinction. By promoting plant-based eating among younger generations, people could protect animals (both inside and outside the food systems) and reduce greenhouse gas by as much as 60 percent. The clock is ticking, according to the UN’s most recent IPCC report. This study on speciesism suggests hope might rest in the younger generations.

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