The Ripple Effect of Meatless Monday: Can it Extend to China?

By Tasha Eichenseher | June 3, 2013 4:15 pm

The Meatless Monday campaign marks its tenth anniversary this year. What started as a public health push, conceived by a Mad Men-era Madison Avenue ad man, has turned into a banner effort for animal rights groups, public school systems, food companies, restaurateurs and environmental groups that all have an interest in promoting healthier, meat-free meals.

A suggested Meatless Monday poster for a Chinese campaign

A suggested Meatless Monday poster for a Chinese campaign that reads: “It’s good for you, good for us, good for the planet.” Photo courtesy of Meatless Monday.

The campaign’s founder and chairman, Sid Lerner, says Meatless Monday has spread to 23 countries. And the Meatless Monday team has recently focused their attention on making inroads into China, where the population consumes about 71 million tons of meat a year.

According to some estimates, the Chinese eat twice as much meat as Americans. The upward trend in carnivorous dining in China, for the most part, corresponds to economic growth. The country’s 1.35 billion residents now consume about a quarter of all meat produced globally.

Hence Chinese meat company Shuanghui International’s interest, announced last week, in merging with America’s Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.

China has a herd of approximately 476 million pigs, about half of the total global pig population, but has been a net importer of pork since 2008, according to coverage in the Economist.

Meatless Monday President Peggy Neu recently spoke at the inaugural U.S.-China Greener Consumption Forum in D.C. about how and why to cut back.

What does Meatless Monday’s Lerner have to say about the Smithfield merger?

“Sounds like a crappy deal for both sides. The manure stays here and the pork goes there along with the high health cost of our meat-heavy diet.”

The Environmental Costs of Meat

When it comes to the environment, keeping the manure here is a significant problem. More meat on the market in general means more pollution — both through greenhouse gas emissions (from fertilizer production, machinery, and the animals themselves) and the nitrogen- (or manure-) rich runoff from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that creates water pollution and oxygen-starved deadzones. (e.g. Many of the algal blooms you see in the Chesapeake Bay and Mississippi River Delta are fed by excess fertilizer and can cause hypoxia.)

Aerial views of the Mississippi, Yangtze and Pearl River Deltas

Aerial views of the Mississippi, Yangtze and Pearl River Deltas, which are all at risk of nutrient pollution from upstream agricultural operations. Photos courtesy of NASA.

(Read DISCOVER’s July/August story on nitrogen pollution.)

Lerner and other advocates of Meatless Monday say the campaign could help curb all of this, and mean water-savings.

On average, 70 percent of the freshwater we use on the planet goes toward agricultural production.  And meat is some of the most water-intensive food to produce, requiring almost 1,800 gallons to make just 1 pound of beef; nearly 575 gallons per pound of pork; and 470 gallons per pound of chicken. Most of that water is used to irrigate crops that feed the animals. A smaller portion is used in troughs to quench their thirst and to clean up bloody messes in slaughterhouses.

“The math is simple; producing meat requires a lot of water,” says Robert Lawrence, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a Meatless Monday adviser. “The conversion of feed to meat is inefficient: about 7:1 for beef, 5:1 for pork, and 2.5:1 for poultry. So, Meatless Monday has the potential of reducing the drain on increasingly scarce supplies of water by about 15 percent.”

What to eat instead? Plant protein, says Roni Neff, the director of research and policy at the Bloomberg School’s Center for a Livable Future, which works on the Meatless Monday campaign. Even grass-fed beef from cows that eat rain-irrigated forage has environmental problems when you consider that the animals are likely around longer and therefore releasing more methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gasses. (Although you probably do cut down on water use and pollution.)

The Ad Man

So how far of a reach does the Meatless Monday campaign have? Lerner says there is no good way to measure. But he does know that Sodexo, the food service provider in 6,300 cafeterias, 900 hospitals and 600 campuses that feeds an estimated 5 million Americans, participates. Baltimore public schools have been on board for the last three years, and California public schools started a program this year. And then there are efforts in those 22 other countries. “That’s progress,” says Lerner. “We never meant to be the major megaphone on this. We try to get to the people who have the megaphones to use Monday for their benefit.”

Lerner, who was behind the successful “Don’t Squeeze the Charmin” toilet paper ad campaign, may be considered a strange leader for such an endeavor. But at the age of 70 he was prescribed Lipitor and started thinking about his own dietary habits. It was then, 10 years ago, at a meeting at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore that he asked how much meat people should cut back on to reduce fat and cholesterol intake. “I said how much is too much and Dr. Bob Lawrence said the FDA and USDA say we eat about 15 percent too much,” says Lerner. “I was thankful for that specific answer because I did the arithmetic in my head and 15 percent of 21 meals came out to be three… which is one day a week, and I said ‘Great! One day a week don’t eat meat.’” When they asked what it should be called: “I remembered from WWII Roosevelt had Meatless Monday to help conserve enough food for the troops. He had picked it up from WWI, when Herbert Hoover had come up with it. “

Monday turns out to be a great day of the week for doing good. “It is a major behavioral motivator in our culture,” Lerner says. “It is the January of the week; it is when people start diets, stop smoking, start doing other things. If you screw up one Monday you can pick up again the next.” Since Meatless Monday launched, Lerner has helped to start a whole series of Monday campaigns, including Move It Monday (for exercising) and Man Up Monday (for getting tested for HIV).

“Advertising, when put to the category can really turn things around,” he adds. “We need the public health industry to not be sanctimonious and smug with their research, but to get out there and market it.”

Waterless Wednesdays?

Next on Lerner’s slate is a campaign to promote New York City’s tap water, and discourage people from drinking bottled water. The “I ♥ New York Water” effort, to start this summer, will sell re-usable water bottles “so you don’t have to buy those damn throw away bottles,” explains Lerner.

The shift from meat to water represents Lerner’s view on the resource issues more of humanity may start to face:  “Think of the planet as a life raft. We’re going to get thirsty as hell before you even start missing food.”

 

 

 

MORE ABOUT: China, Meatless Monday
  • http://twitter.com/fyngyrz Bennie The Bouncer

    This is such nonsense. “Requires 1800 gallons to make 1 lb of beef”, my aching posterior. The vast majority of the water intake of the animal and the plants it feeds on goes right back into the ecosystem. Actual amount *consumed* by raising beef (and just about anything else) is nearly net zero in a local sense, and wholly insignificant in a global sense. Furthermore, we have the ability to purify water in any quantity that is relevant. We just don’t, because there has been very little pressure to do so. The main real problem we face is the establishment of major communities where little water is available (California, Nevada, etc.), at which point we reduce the available supply elsewhere without properly compensating. As for allowing unpurified runoff, yeah, that’s just plain stupid. But politicians are that. Stupid, I mean.

    • JJ

      genius, most of the water that it takes to grow the corn and other things are used to feed the animals you eat doesn’t go back to the “ecosystem”.. it becomes contaminated water full of pesticides and nitrogen that goes into the rivers, creating dead zones where fish can’t live. This is not a “net zero” total as you put it.
      Has it occured to you that the amount of water you consume and comes out of you, is completely unusable?
      Why don’t you drink your own pee?
      Go and drink some of the wonderful and pure water off the missisipi river to see the “net zero effect”, MORON

      • http://twitter.com/fyngyrz Bennie The Bouncer

        So, you skipped science class. You don’t understand what the word “purify” means. You don’t understand how drinkable water gets that way in the first place. You don’t have sufficient knowledge of our own purification technologies, either. Perhaps your best bet is to not speak and demonstrate these things. It is amusing, but it certainly does you no good.

        • JJ

          You are clueless.
          The water that comes out of your body is not pure, moron, it is full of uric acid and a ton of other stuff. The things that are in your urine are so concentrated that they will kill most house plants. Just try peeing in one of your house plants to see what happens. You are an ignorant clueless moron

  • Sandgroper

    “According to some estimates, the Chinese eat twice as much meat as Americans. ” Per capita? You cannot be serious. Where are you getting these estimates from?

    Or do you mean the nation of China (pop. 1.35 billion) consumes twice as much meat as the nation of America (pop. 316 million)? That still sounds very high to me, but it might be a little closer to the truth than the way you stated it – that would mean that the average Chinese citizen would be eating almost half as much meat as the average American citizen.

    Well, how about extending Chinese eating habits to America? OK?

  • Yolanda L C MacKenzie

    Ironic that the article appears to ask the question about China’s meat consumption.
    The Chinese have traditionally not used meat as their main chunk of food,but rather as an accent.
    Not every meal is meat based.
    Seems,many could decrease their meat consumption by adopting meat as an accent,rather than as a main focus?
    This seems to suggest that the Chinese across the board are Westernized,and have increased their personal wealth to adopt such major meat consumption.?
    When I read recently that Smithfield had been purchased by China,I did not think it was exclusively to remain in the Chinese domain,but rather another company of the US purchased by Chinese investors.

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Water Works

Water Works is a forum for telling stories about where our drinking water and food come from. It traces tap water back to its source, demystifies tales of pollution, dissects infrastructure, digs into soil quality, explores efficient farming, touches on energy and climate issues, and gets to the root of predicted food and water security problems.

About Tasha Eichenseher

Tasha Eichenseher is a senior editor at Discover magazine, where she produces print and digital stories and manages the Discover blogging network . With more than a decade of science journalism experience, Tasha has spent the last few years focused on writing and editing content about water. Before moving back to Wisconsin, she helped to launch National Geographic's freshwater initiative, website, and news series, and blogged for Water Currents. In 2011 and 2012, she studied water law, wastewater treatment and aquatic ecosystems as a Ted Scripps Environmental Journalism Fellow at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She takes her water with whiskey.

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