Sustainability Column: The Impact of “Meatless Monday”

Chances are that you have probably heard the phrase “Meatless Monday” from a friend or from someone tabling in dining areas across campus. It sounds simple: don’t eat meat on Mondays. But why are you being encouraged to avoid meat one alliterative day a week? The fact is that the advocacy for going meat-free weekly has much wider implications than just your diet for one day. Along with the animal welfare arguments about eating meat, there are also a large amount of negative environmental impacts hidden by meat companies’ lack of transparency and the average consumer’s lack of interest.

Meat, as it is produced in extraordinary mass quantities today, has some pretty significant adverse effects on the environment. The business of maintaining livestock and producing meat for consumers around the world has become an immense operation that has been continually increasing in size over time. In fact, 30 percent of the world’s land is devoted to supporting livestock such as cows, chickens and pigs. The demand that the meat industry currently runs on allows for nearly 300 million tons of meat to be produced each year globally. With such a grand scale of production, the meat industry creates two major impacts that directly harm our natural environment among a slew of many others that are more localized in nature.

First, livestock in such large numbers creates a significant portion of the greenhouse gasses that are currently driving detrimental climate change across the globe. Methane, a significantly more potent global warming contributor than carbon dioxide, is released directly from livestock. In addition, the transport of meat across the globe from large-scale “meat factories” contributes carbon dioxide from fuel emissions.

Secondly, the production of meat uses exorbitant amounts of our planet’s available water resources. The production of any food requires a significant amount of water before it can be consumed, but meat, in all of its varieties, puts a particularly large strain on water resources. Cattle require drinking water and the feed grown for them requires irrigation water. For one pound of beef produced, 1,840 gallons of water are used. While meats such as chicken necessitate less water than beef to create the same amount, it still takes nearly 13 times more water than is needed to make one pound of vegetables. So while water resources are already under duress across the world, meat production is further sinking the Earth’s population into a water crisis.

So next time it’s Monday and you’re wondering what to grab for lunch, consider skipping the meat for the day, or longer if you feel so inclined. By opting for the plate of veggies instead of the hamburger, you can take one small but important step toward helping the environment, by protecting our climate and conserving water resources.