The Meatless Mondays campaign encourages consumers to skip meat one day a week in favor of plant-based foods, and highlights how this simple action can help improve their health and reduce the environmental impacts of their diets. Seems small, but the collective impacts are potentially anything but. According to estimates by the Humane Society of the United States, if every American embraced Meatless Mondays, we would need to raise 1.4 billion fewer farm animals. That translates into a lot fewer toxic chemicals, reduced climate pollution, healthier soils and waterways, and a lot less animal cruelty.
But when a food company decided to implement the initiative in House of Representative cafeterias this month, the conventional livestock industry was quick to pounce—in highly hyperbolic fashion. In a letter to the House Administration Committee, the euphemistically named “Farm Animal Welfare Coalition” called Meatless Mondays “an acknowledged tool of animal rights and environmental organizations who seek to publicly denigrate U.S. livestock and poultry production.” The group asked the Committee to inform the company that “it must cease immediately” any activity promoting Meatless Mondays. Unfortunately, the effort now appears dead in its tracks.
Last year, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was similarly pressured into removing language promoting Meatless Mondays from a sustainability newsletter to employees after facing pressure from the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, which I discussed here. That’s right. Not a press release or any kind of policy document. An internal employee newsletter suggesting that one way to reduce their environmental impact while dining at their office cafeteria is to skip meat once a week.
This kind of bullying—and swift caving on the part of the House Committee—is shameless for sure. But it also suggests the conventional livestock industry knows it has something to worry about when it comes to American consumers. Despite this disappointing episode, public trends speak for themselves.
Meatless Mondays have become a cultural force, and more and more Americans are significantly cutting their meat consumption for their health, as well as a greater awareness of the environmental benefits of switching to plant-based options. On Mondays, it’s not uncommon for the hashtag #MeatlessMondays to be “trending” on Twitter, which means it’s one of the topics being tweeted about most often on that day. Prominent Americans from Bill Gates to Ellen DeGeneres to Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, and even Mike Tyson have embraced a reduced or no meat diet. Entire school districts are adopting Meatless Mondays in their cafeterias.
But while overall meat consumption is down (USDA data indicates that the average American consumed 12.2% less meat and poultry overall in 2012 than they did in 2007), the choices Americans are making when they do choose to eat meat are also changing. While sales of conventional meat are flat or declining, sales of healthier, more sustainably produced meats are up.
For reasons that include personal health, environmental concerns, animal welfare, taste, and quality, many consumers are seeking alternatives to conventional meat products, such as meat and poultry raised without reliance on antibiotics. And this isn’t going unnoticed. Mainstream consumer brands, restaurants, and food retailers like Applegate, Chipotle, Fresh Direct, and Panera Bread have responded to growing consumer demand and are successfully marketing and selling hundreds of millions of pounds of meat and poultry raised without antibiotics to customers across the country each year.
For example, while sales of chicken, turkey, pork, and beef raised without antibiotics remain a small segment of the market—accounting for just about 2% of total meal sales—demand is growing fast. By some estimates sales are up 25% in the past three years. USDA Certified Organic meats, which are just one segment of the no-antibiotics meat and poultry market, were the fastest growing sector of the $31 billion organic foods industry in 2011.
Reduced overall demand for meat coupled with rising demand for more sustainably produced meat is good news. Not just for our health but for the health of the environment.
The impacts of the conventional meat industry are notorious. Livestock production is in many ways the single most damaging sector of agriculture. It’s not only responsible for tremendous habitat degradation and biodiversity loss, erosion and desertification, air and climate pollution, but it is also the largest and least regulated source of water pollution in the nation.
Within the dominant production model, massive numbers of chickens, pigs and cows are confined in giant feedlots—often called factory farms—where they are routinely fed antibiotics to made them grow faster and to compensate for dirty, crowded and stressful conditions. These conditions create a breeding ground for antibiotic resistance bacteria, which escape in the air, water, on workers and the meat itself, getting into our environment and making people very sick. The public health and medical community has warned that this practice is endangering human health by contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistance in humans and putting the essential medicines we rely on at risk.
Swapping out meat for any number of lower-impact forms of protein just one day per week is one of the most impactful things concerned individuals can do to reduce their environmental “foodprints”. Far from some radical endeavor seeking to denigrate American meat and poultry producers, this simple action can also free consumers up to choose healthier and more sustainably-produced meat products when they do choose to eat meat.
Every day, farmers across the country are showing that we can produce meat in ways that are healthier for our families, our planet, and animals. And every week, concerned citizens and consumers across the country are voting with their wallets, simultaneously making Meatless Mondays increasingly mainstream and helping to bring an abundance of alternative meat and poultry products into the marketplace.
More and more, the bullies can’t beat the buyers.
This post originally appeared on the NRDC Switchboard.