Across the country, many people choose to avoid meat for health reasons, personal or cultural beliefs, or simply out of taste preference. Research has also added another reason to consider going meatless: environmental impact. Gram for gram, animal protein requires more resources to produce than plant-based alternatives. Meatless Monday, a campaign now in its eleventh year, provides resources for individuals and institutions looking to reap the benefits of an occasionally meatless diet.
A day without meat
In the US, campaigns advocating meat-free dining one day each week date back to World War I. Then, they were meatless Tuesdays, part of the rationing effort that preserved staple foods, including wheat, sugar, and meat, for the war effort (1). The movement was reimagined as a public health campaign in 2003, spearheaded by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and former advertisement developer Sid Lerner. Meatless Mondays were initially meant as a way to promote the health benefits of a diet lower in fat and cholesterol (of which meat is a primary source) (2). Efforts to improve the sustainability of America’s food supply, however, revealed that choosing alternatives to meat has environmental benefits as well.
Small change, big impact
While no food is without some environmental impact, the effect varies depending on the type produced. Factors such as land and water use, application of biocides (like pesticides and disinfectants), and transporting raw materials and finished products all play a role in the overall impact of the production process. A 2003 study by Reijnders and Soret in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition sought to quantify these effects for a variety of foods. They found that producing a single gram of meat uses up to 26 times the amount of water required for a gram of soy protein, and as much as 17 times more land area. Though estimates vary depending on the animals raised and the agricultural practices involved, all were well above the impact of soy production. Fresh vegetable production, particularly using organic methods, also generated a smaller impact than raising and processing animals for meat.
Can cutting out meat for just one day a week really add up to a meaningful impact? Suppose a typical Monday included two eggs, a four ounce portion of pork and a five ounce portion of beef. Based on agricultural water footprints assessed by Mekonnen and Hoekstra, producing this amount of animal protein would require roughly 887 gallons of water, compared to 34 for soy protein. Over the course of a year, a single person swapping out those 11 grams of animal protein would save approximately 44,356 gallons. That’s equivalent to nearly twice the capacity of the Evergreen Supertanker, a fire-fighting plane used to combat forest fire.
Giving up meat one day a week doesn’t have to mean cutting back on flavor or nutrition. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides general recommendations for a healthy diet, which are available at choosemyplate.gov. These recommendations include proteins from both plant and animal sources. Good sources of plant protein include legumes like peas, beans, and peanuts, as well as soy-based products like tofu and tempeh. Other options include nuts, seeds, and whole grains such as oats and quinoa. Meatless Monday’s website offers hundreds of recipe ideas for incorporating these foods into your diet; exploring local markets for seasonal produce and regional specialties can also lend inspiration. Whether one day a week, or on a more regular basis, the benefits of opting for meatless meals can add up. What began as a movement to improve personal health has become a simple means of promoting a more sustainable food system. From lowering cholesterol to saving water, swapping out that turkey for tempeh can do much more than liven up your Monday.
1. Avey, T. (2013, August 16). Discover the History of Meatless Mondays. Retrieved October 9, 2014, from The History Kitchen: http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-meatless-mondays/
2. West, M. G. (2013, March 15). Ad Man’s Meatless Mission. The Wall Street Journal.