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Don’t miss your chance to see Oxford Population Health research featured in Meat The Future: an interactive exhibition hosted by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History which explores how meat consumption affects our health and the environment.

Livestock farming is a key driver of climate change, deforestation and pollution, presenting a clear environmental case for diets that are more plant-based. In addition, there is growing evidence (including research led by Oxford Population Health) that high meat consumption may increase the risk of many diseases, including bowel cancer and heart disease. A global reduction in meat consumption could therefore have significant benefits for both human health and ecosystems.

Several researchers from Oxford Population Health are involved with the Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP) project, which is building an evidence base to help the public and policy makers understand which diets are both healthy and sustainable.

In May 2021, LEAP partnered with Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) to bring to life ‘Meat The Future’: an interactive exhibition which explores the impacts of meat and dairy foods, and presents potential future scenarios. ‘With sustainable diets being a topical issue that affects everyone, we were really excited to work with the LEAP team on Meat The Future, combining the museum’s strong public engagement platform with Oxford University’s research excellence,’ said Natasha Smith, Exhibitions Officer for OUMNH.

According to Lucy Yates, Public Engagement Co-ordinator for LEAP, the aim of the exhibition was ‘not to tell people what to do, but to empower them to make the best dietary decisions for themselves based on the evidence.’ Around 30 researchers – from human geographers to atmospheric physicists – were involved in developing the content, highlighting how broad and complex the issue is. ‘We were keen to highlight the health-related aspects of meat consumption, since it affects people personally and can therefore be a strong motivation to change their habits,’ Lucy added.

The team then had the challenge of converting a mountain of data, graphs and tables into memorable, relevant messages that people could easily understand. The team worked with Easy Tiger Creative to design a series of visually striking, 3D installations mimicking real-world food environments (such as a butcher’s stall and a restaurant table) to present the information. Some of these draw on OUMNH’s own collections, for instance to highlight animal species at risk of extinction due to habitat loss from livestock farming. Alongside these displays are interactive, hands-on activities, including an online shopping portal that estimates the environmental impacts of the customer’s chosen food products.

A varied programme of online and in-person events accompanies the exhibition, including a series of talks that explore particular issues in greater depth (available to view on the OUMNH YouTube channel). In Food For Thought, Professor Peter Scarborough and Professor Tim Key from Oxford Population Health debate the public perception of the healthiness of meat, and how people can be encouraged to make dietary changes. ‘As we discuss in the talk, concerns have been raised about possible negative health implications of some plant-based alternatives that are ultra-processed and can have high levels of salt,’ Professor Scarborough said. ‘But whilst it is important to be vigilant about how new entrants to the marketplace are affecting diets, data from observational studies suggest that vegans and vegetarians generally have good health, and may have lower rates of certain diet-related diseases including diabetes and heart disease.’

Besides the talks, the events programme also included a study day for A-Level students, a museum Late Night event, and ‘Super Science Saturday’, a science-fair event for families. Dr Keren Papier  from Oxford Population Health, who ran a stall at Super Science Saturday with her colleague Dr Maria Kakkoura, said: ‘Our stall used Lego bricks and stickers to communicate how we use data in our research, which proved very popular with young children in particular! Because the kids were so young, we were very involved in helping them complete the activities. This gave us an opportunity to chat with them, and gain a rare insight into the messages they took home from the event.’

The LEAP team have also showcased the research in venues beyond OUMNH, including Meat Your Persona, a pop-up installation which toured six UK cities in a bright yellow horsebox last summer.

Since its launch, Meat The Future has proved to be a success, with visitors describing it as highly accessible, relevant and impactful. ‘It’s been really nice to see people discussing the exhibits among themselves – they’ve achieved exactly what we wanted in opening up and starting conversations,’ Natasha said.

Thanks to Meat The Future’s popularity so far, the exhibition has been extended at OUMNH until May 2022.

Meat The Future is located on the first floor at OUMNH and is free of charge. The exhibition is suitable for older children upwards. For opening times and events, see the OUMNH website.

LEAP is supported by Wellcome’s Our Planet Our Health Programme.