The Meatless Monday message is simple enough: Cut out meat once a week to help both your body and your environment.
And yet, despite its candid nature, the campaign has gotten a tremendous amount of media attention in the past month for its hasty retraction of a seemingly innocuous plug in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) monthly employee newsletter. (For those who haven’t heard, a blurb in the interoffice newsletter suggested that employees should consider choosing a vegetarian option for future Monday lunches. The tip was removed just hours later after a stern word from the National Cattleman’s Beef Association.)
Both the New York Times and NPR drew attention to the meat industry’s harsh reaction, quoting the spokesperson of the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, who called the eat-less-meat recommendation a “slap in the face”.,  Leslie Hatfield of the Huffington Post placed her reaction in the context of industrialized meat and its environmentally unsustainable state. Via CNN, Ben Grossman-Cohen, press officer for Oxfam America’s GROW Campaign, also discussed the positive environmental changes that could come as a result of swapping out “beef for lentils just once a week…the emissions reductions from this tiny step alone would be the equivalent of taking 3.7 million cars off the road for a year”.
All of the above articles seem to be in agreement that something is seriously wrong with this picture. The environmental reality, according to countless studies and summarized by Grossman-Cohen, is this:
“The reality is that it takes massive amounts of land, water, fertilizer, oil and other resources to produce meat, significantly more than it requires to grow other nutritious and delicious kinds of food. Because meat production is so resource intensive, livestock farming actually accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle farming alone consumes nearly 8% of global human water use”.
Meatless Monday’s official website summarizes another extensively studied reality – the health benefits of reducing meat consumption. They include the following:
“Limit cancer risk.”
“Reduce heart disease.”
I found these points rather telling while doing research on this topic, particularly because of the history of past Meatless Mondays. Here’s a brief synopsis to introduce my point:
World War I: Meatless Monday was initiated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a campaign to encourage families to reduce consumption of key staples to aid the war effort. Conserving food would support U.S. troops as well as feed populations in Europe where food production and distribution had been disrupted by war. “Wheatless Wednesday” was also introduced as a sister voluntary rationing program.
World War II: The campaign re-emerged in the same style as its predecessor, calling upon women on the home front to play a role in supporting the war effort. Other commodities were being rationed at this time, such as sugar and gasoline.
2003 (The Present): Meatless Monday regained its presence in society, this time as a public health awareness program. The goal this time around, outlined in the “About” section of its webpage, is “to help you reduce your meat consumption by 15% in order to improve your personal health and the health of the planet”. The underlying connection between all three eras of Meatless Monday is clear, but at the same time, chillingly disparate.
The great divide between the former two and the most recent is obvious: the current Meatless Monday was not motivated by an international war. Rather, it was sparked by the frightening number of artery-clogged bodies and gas-filled skies.
This leads us to the similarity: Meatless Monday has only ever entered our society in very extreme circumstances. It took decades after World War II for it to return. Would it be a stretch to think that the eat-less-meat campaign rematerialized because we’re now facing another war? But this time, it’s a war waged against our unhealthy bodies and the polluted air we breathe?
With all of this in mind, it’s difficult to go back to the articles about the USDA pulling their Meatless Monday recommendation. It’s difficult to try and understand why and how a food and nutrition department as influential as the USDA can be bullied into submission by an industrialized and deeply non-nutritious food system.
The facts are clear, the disparities illogical. With all of this complexity, it may seem entirely too simple to say the following, but it’s a hopeful statement so I’ll say it anyway: What can remain steadfast and what can inaugurate change, is us and the dietary choices that we make. Even better, we can start with just one day a week.