Thursday, May 28, 2009

Meatless Monday: Retooling the American Diet

Policy Innovations contributor Mikaela Bradbury reports on global food habits:

The issue of animal rights and eating meat has resurfaced in mainstream politics and intellectual thought, as it touches upon global crises from climate change to food safety. Whether to eat other animals is now a practical issue of efficiency and self-interest, as well as an abstract moral dilemma.

The hunger and efficiency argument goes as follows: If it takes several kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef, why aren't we eating the grain directly, and is it ethical to feed cows when human beings are starving around the world?

The self-interest argument applies on a personal and a planetary level, through the recognized health benefits of a vegetable-rich diet and the threat of climate change. Livestock rearing contributes an estimated 18 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, more than the transportation sector. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock industry is also a prime driver of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.

Yet beyond the waves of public abstinence and outrage associated with cases of food contamination or animal disease outbreak, vegetarianism is still a long way from achieving the social status of hybrid cars as a response to global warming. In fact, meat consumption is expected to double by 2050. Although cars and meat share a similar story as twin culprits of climate change, the livestock sector sees no need to retool with the same urgency as the automobile industry, in anticipation of drastic market shifts and new government regulations.

Eating local is an emergent trend that combines food and transport, but its overall effect may be negligible, as food transport constitutes only 5 percent of total food-related emissions. "You can have a much bigger impact by shifting just one day a week from meat and dairy to anything else than going local every day of the year," argues Chris Weber, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Last September, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made the same suggestion, urging people to eat a meat-free diet once per week. "In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity," he said.

This is the spirit behind "Meatless Monday," an idea that the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has recycled from Herbert Hoover's WWI Food Administration. "It is a small change with large effects," said Brian Waniewski, director of the Healthy Monday campaign, in an interview with Policy Innovations.

Why Monday? According to some studies, changes that occur on Mondays are more likely to impact the rest of the week, explained Waniewski. People who are tied to the 5-day work week have internalized Monday as a "reset day," a time to purge the indulgences of the past and plan constructively for the future.

The notion of Meatless Monday hearkens back to previous eras of hardship when Americans were called upon to ration in support of the troops. Sid Lerner, chairman of the Healthy Monday campaign, reinvigorated the idea as a public health initiative in 2005, when the dangers of trans fats were gripping the media. Since then, Meatless Monday has repositioned itself as an effective response to environmental, economic, and health issues.

The movement will have to avoid sounding moralistic as it expands internationally. Particularly in developing countries, where hunger is the worst and meat consumption is expected to grow the most, Meatless Monday must be seen as a beneficial solution, not an unjust sacrifice. Although some of these countries may strive to leapfrog over the failures of modernization—such as obesity and high cholesterol—the Western diet is still strongly perceived as a sign of wealth and prosperity.

Photo courtesy of Curtis Hightower (CC).

1 comment:

Mohan said...

This is an interesting and powerful argument. While Indians and South Asians use religion as an defence to promote vegetarianism, saving the planet is surely a contemporary argument.