One drizzly Thursday last May, the townsfolk of Ghent, a Flemish burg of some 250,000 souls famous for its stoverij—a stew of beef braised in beer—gathered outside a centuries-old slaughterhouse in the town’s historic core to sample soy fritters, pick up a map of local vegetarian eateries, and to watch as a boy in a banana costume did valiant battle against another dressed as a beefsteak. This was Ghent’s inaugural Donderdag Veggiedag—Thursday Veggieday, literally—a weekly holiday from the evils of beef, ﬁsh, pork and poultry introduced last year by city council, which declared that the moratorium on animal protein would be “good for the climate, your health and your taste buds.” Said a representative of the Ethical Vegetarian Alternative, Belgium’s largest vegetarian organization and a partner in the city initiative: “If everyone in Flanders does not eat meat one day a week, we will save as much CO2 in a year as taking half a million cars off the road.”
Though meatlessness in Ghent each Thursday is encouraged rather than required, the policy has made vegetarianism pervasive: 95 per cent of the city’s children at 35 local schools, as well as the city’s elected councillors and civil servants, now submit to the Veggiedag menu each week. One poster promoting the policy depicts a polar bear adrift on a shrunken hunk of ice declaring with relief: “Oef! It’s Thursday.”
Donderdag Veggiedag was a global ﬁrst, putting medieval Ghent on the cutting edge of efforts to combat climate change by changing the way people eat. But elsewhere, too, the moderate meat movement is gaining ground. A Meatless Mondays organization founded in the U.S. has now opened branches in Holland, Finland, Canada, Taiwan and Australia. Following Ghent’s lead, cities like São Paulo and Tel Aviv have created city-wide schemes. Last year, Baltimore became the first city in North America to mandate Meatless Mondays in its school cafeterias, for environmental as well as health reasons. A similar proposal has just been made for New York City schools.
Meanwhile, meatless manifestos are topping bestseller lists, from food phenom Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, with its subtle suggestion, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” to American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s painfully graphic anti-meat treatise, Eating Animals. Dwelling on all the nasty details of the livestock industry, Safran Foer reminds us that even meat from humanely raised cattle “came from an animal who, at best—and it’s precious few who get away with this—was burned, mutilated and killed for the sake of a few minutes of human pleasure.”
Star power, too, is focusing more attention on the cause. In December, former Beatle and long-time animal rights crusader Sir Paul McCartney appeared before the European Parliament in Brussels to back his Meat Free Monday campaign, which seeks to cut CO2 emissions by encouraging people to go meatless once a week. An impressive score of celebrity endorsements followed, from such luminaries as singer Chris Martin, actor Alec Baldwin, ’60s-era model Twiggy, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore and, most recently, American Idol judge Simon Cowell. Gwyneth Paltrow issued a meatless edition of GOOP, her Internet newsletter, featuring a column by McCartney.
For centuries, people have debated the ethics of killing for food (one clearly carnivorous Stoic philosopher, Chrysippus, wrote in the third century BCE that the purpose of an animal’s soul was simply to keep the meat fresh). New is the focus on the environmental consequences of meat—one rooted in science. Meatless proponents often refer to a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Chicago that suggests the vegan diet is a more effective way of curbing climate change than driving a hybrid car. Or, for that matter, a 2008 Carnegie Mellon report that suggests that eschewing meat beats eating local. And they’re quick to draw comparisons with more conventional ways of cutting greenhouse gas emissions—things like public transit or switching off the lights. One oft repeated number is Carnegie Mellon researcher Christopher Weber’s calculation that forgoing red meat for veggies just a day a week would save 1,860 km of driving a year (assuming the car did 10.6 km per litre of gas).
The numbers are compelling. According to one exhaustive report, “Livestock’s long shadow,” released in 2006 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock accounts for 18 per cent of worldwide greenhouse gases, more than those emitted by all forms of transportation combined, and is a leading cause of deforestation and water pollution. Other estimates put the percentage of greenhouse gases leaked into the atmosphere during the raising of animals for food even higher. Last October, Robert Goodland, formerly the World Bank’s lead environmental adviser, and Jeff Anhang, a World Bank researcher, attributed a staggering 51 per cent of world emissions to livestock production.
It’s not just CO2 that’s at issue. Thanks to our appetite for bacon, vast lakes of manure dot the North American heartland, steaming nitrous oxide into the air, while the antibiotics fed to our sick, grain-fed cattle ooze into our waterways. Such vistas have led to plaintive requests like that of Rajendra Pachauri, the now-embattled head of the UN’s panel on climate change: “Please eat less meat.” Pachauri’s Nobel Prize-winning group has come under ﬁre for a series of errors in its widely read 2007 report—including the faulty claim that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035—but its meatless message continues to strike a chord.