What is Meatless Monday?

The official Meatless Monday campaign began as a partnership between heath advocate Sid Lerner and the Bloomberg School of Public Health at John Hopkins University. Since 2003, the campaign has become a weekly ritual for health and environmentally conscious eaters across the globe. The Meatless Monday campaign aims at addressing the rising prevalence of preventable illness associated with overconsumption of meat products. The United States ranks second in global meat consumption. The average American consumes 270.7 pounds of meat each year – nearly 169 pounds above the global average and heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. Cutting meat intake may improve your overall health by lowering your risk of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity by reducing intake of saturated fats.

But did you know that reducing personal meat consumption is also good for our planet? There are over 7 billion people living on the earth and sharing its resources. Now of course, not all people eat meat – but many do. Reduced intake of meat products can help reduce an individual’s eco-footprint by preserving freshwater, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and curbing global deforestation. Here’s how.

Reduced Water Footprint

Did you know meat consumption accounts for 30 percent of the U.S. water footprint? It takes approximately 500 gallons of water to produce one pound of chicken and an astonishing 1,799 gallons to produce one pound of beef! These figures are considerably higher than the 39 gallons of water required to produce one pound of vegetables. That is because much of the animal protein water footprint is hidden. For example, when raising cattle, we need water to grow the grain for the cattle feed, water for the cows to drink, and water to irrigate their grazing areas. Reducing meat intake has the potential to significantly reduce your water footprint. One UN report found a vegetarian diet could reduce water consumption in the US by as much as 50% per person.

Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Agriculture, largely through meat production, is a main contributor to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 10-35 percent of global GHG emissions can be linked to agriculture, 10-25 percent of which are directly linked to animal agriculture. Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas in our atmosphere, and the agriculture sector is the primary source of methane emissions in the world. Cows and other livestock release large amounts of methane into the atmosphere though digestive processes (flatulence) and production of waste (manure). Together, they contribute the equivalent of 2.2 billion tons of CO2! The Environmental Working Group estimates that if everyone in the U.S. gave up meat and dairy product for one day a week, it would have the same impact as taking 7.6 million cars off the road!

Curb Deforestation

Cattle ranching is the number one cause of deforestation in nearly all Amazon countries, accounting for 80% of all deforestation. Land is being cleared at alarming rates in Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru to keep up with the steady rise in demand for animal protein, making it more vulnerable to fire, riparian degradation, and soil erosion. Land conversion for agricultural purposes also contributes to global climate change. Currently, deforestation caused by cattle ranching accounts for 3.4% of global GHG emissions.

While going meatless once a week will not solve our environmental problems, it is an excellent place to start. Understanding the consequences of the choices you make in your daily life is the first step in becoming an informed consumer and treading lighter on our planet. Check out the official Meatless Monday website for information on local restaurants participating in Meatless Monday as well as links to delicious meatless recipes and e-cookbooks. If you are on social media, include the #meatlessmonday hashtag in your posts to raise awareness and encourage others to go #meatless.

Want to teach your students about the hidden costs of meat consumption? Population Education has some exciting lesson plans related to water consumption, global climate change, and shifting land use patterns. Our elementary lesson – Every Drop Counts – explores indirect water use by investigating and reflecting upon their personal water consumption. Students are encouraged to take action by identifying the ways in which they can conserve water in their daily lives. You can also explore lessons by topic using the Population Education website.