Dear EarthTalk: I know that some people abstain from meat on Fridays for religious reasons, but what’s the story behind “Meatless Mondays?” — Sasha Burger, Ronkonkoma, NY
Meatless Monday—the modern version of it, at least—was born in 2003 with the goal of reducing meat consumption by 15 percent in the U.S. and beyond. The rationale? Livestock production accounts for one-fifth of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and is also a major factor in global forest and habitat loss, freshwater depletion, pollution and human health problems. The average American eats some eight ounces of meat every day—45 percent more than the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended amount.
An outgrowth of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future, the Meatless Monday project offers vegetarian recipes, interviews with experts, various resources for schools, organizations and municipalities that wish to promote the initiative—and regular updates on Facebook and Twitter. “Going meatless once a week can reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity,” the group reports. “It can also help limit your carbon footprint and save resources like fresh water and fossil fuel.”
The Meatless Monday concept actually dates back to World War I, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urged citizens to reduce their meat, wheat and sugar intakes, since such foods took more energy to produce than others. Americans willing to cut back—even just one day a week—would be supporting the troops and helping to feed starving Europeans. To encourage participation, the FDA coined the terms “Meatless Monday” and “Wheatless Wednesday” and published vegetarian cookbooks and informational pamphlets. The campaign was resurrected briefly during World War II, but then died down.
But as Meatless Monday President Peggy Neu reports in a recent issue of E – The Environmental Magazine, today the initiative has transcended its war effort origins: “The focus for the first couple of years was health,” Neu says, but the movement has begun to grow in part because of increasing awareness of the environmental impact of meat consumption.
Some of the municipalities and institutions that have signed on include the City of San Francisco, the Baltimore Public School System, and Harvard and Columbia universities (along with some two dozen other colleges). Similar campaigns have sprung up in two dozen other countries, while the city of Ghent in Belgium, Oxford University in the UK, and Israel’s Tel Aviv University have also pledged to participate.
In May of 2010, a Washington Post article reported that the meat industry is feeling the heat. “Over the past year, lobbying groups including the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Board and the Farm Bureau have launched a quiet campaign to try to reverse the momentum,” reported the piece. The Animal Agriculture Alliance and the American Meat Institute have railed that Baltimore schoolchildren are being denied protein—and have urged citizens not to allow Meatless Monday to spread. But Neu says the movement is here to stay. “I want this movement to be sustainable prevention,” she says, “not just a health or environmental fad.”