Meatless Monday is a global movement that encourages people to eliminate meat from their diet one day a week for the proposed benefits to health, carbon footprint and environmental impact.
Meatless Monday benefits to health include reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes and improving overall health.
Eating less meat can reduce a person’s carbon footprint, assuming that they replace the meat with plant protein because of the energetics of animal production and the methane production in the gut and from the manure of ungulates.
As the price of meat rises, there are meatless Monday benefits to the hip pocket.
Reducing the consumption of meat, individuals can also help reduce the environmental impact of animal agriculture on the assumption that fewer animals will graze on cleared land
Lots of wins for a simple choice as part of a sustainable diet.
Except, that is a somewhat simplistic view given the global challenge of feeding everyone well.
Meatless Monday benefits to health
Humans eat meat; we always have.
Our digestive system has an acid stomach and relatively short intestines compared to other great apes. These are adaptations towards nutrient-dense foods and away from the longer processing time needed to digest a plant-based diet of our near cousins gorillas and chimps.
Acid is also handy to neutralise harmful bacteria in carrion or the rump of the three-day-old kudu carcass the tribe speared and ran down across the veld.
Humans eat plants; we always have.
Omnivory is a splendid way to get by when the hunters miss the kudu with their spears and the lions have been lazy. Tubers, fruits, seeds, and leaves are all good, even if it takes a day to pound out the nasty chemicals.
What some might call a paleo diet was always mixed and it always contained animal protein, even if it was just beetle grubs, grasshoppers and termite alates winnowed to remove the wings and lightly seared on the coals.
What it didn’t have was processed food.
Meatless Monday benefits to health are primarily due to the current prevalence of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, which are often diet related. But most of the health consequences of a poor diet come from an inbalance in sugar, vegetable oils and grains together with a high proportion of processed and ultra-processed foods that don’t grow on trees.
Going meatless on a Monday is good if the meat you give up is bacon, salami or prosciutto, but otherwise, the meatless Monday benefits to health are a long bow.
Meatless Monday benefits to the environment.
You would have to be living under a cow pat not to have heard some of the many ways livestock are bad for the planet.
Their burps are a greenhouse disaster, vast areas of forest are cleared to accommodate them, and they use food that humans could eat, not to mention the vast amounts of water they are guzzling.
Even if only partly true, these impacts are a problem.
Humans and their livestock account for 97% of the mammal biomass on Earth. This astonishing statistic and the reason for biodiversity loss explains why so many of the other 5,488 mammal species are at risk of extinction. There cannot be that many of them if almost all the biomass is cows, sheep, goats, pigs and a few alpacas.
But what to do?
One option is to eat less or even eliminate meat from our diets. Less meat consumption would mean fewer livestock and less impact, perhaps some more space and biomass for wildlife.
This might work in wealthier countries, where food abundance makes it possible to choose a healthy diet from the range of foods available besides meat.
But what about the disadvantaged, those who practice subsistence agriculture, where food choice is limited, and nutrient deficiencies and hunger are common?
For these folk it is not as simple as perusing the menu to decide on the fillet steak or the impossible burger.
Meatless every day
Recent reports from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicate that around 820 million people in Africa and Asia remain chronically undernourished. Many cannot meet one or more of the four pillars of food security—availability, access, utilisation and stability—so they cannot secure enough energy and nutrients for metabolic health.
Then there are another 3 billion people who have some form of malnutrition where they may have enough food to keep them going, but their diets are out of balance. Some lack essential micronutrients and minerals and have poor metabolic health from shortages. Others have too much of certain food groups, especially grains, sugar, vegetable oils, and processed foods and become overweight or obese.
Some of these people are meatless every day.
They will chuckle at claims for the meatless Monday benefits.
Livestock essential to nutrition
In undeveloped and developing economies, local livestock production increases the availability of animal-source foods as a source of proteins and micronutrients necessary for a healthy population.
In these countries, increased intakes of animal-source foods provide critical benefits to nutritionally vulnerable groups such as children, women of reproductive age and older people.
The African livestock sector underpins the livelihoods of millions of pastoralists and mixed-crop farmers, generating much-needed employment, especially for women and young people.
Around 249 million women in Africa keep livestock, providing an opportunity for income and wealth creation. When women own livestock, the number of months that households have sufficient and nutritious food increases and the frequency of meat consumption is significantly higher than in households where women do not own livestock.
In Asia and Africa, there are around 1 billion people keeping livestock who live on less than 2 US dollars a day. This represents 80% of poor Africans and up to 66% of poor people in India and Bangladesh.
Traditional farming is based on mixed small farms in South and South-East Asia. Livestock provides food security, draught power, fibre, manure and fuel. Livestock is also a ‘living bank’, providing economic security for millions of families. Agriculture at this scale is not an essential industry for most Asian countries in terms of GDP. However, it is a crucial source of high-quality protein, minerals and vitamins to the population through milk, meat and eggs.
For the 1 billion people living on less than $1 a day who keep livestock go meatless on a Monday. They go meatless most days, but the livestock keep them alive.
Global demand for animal protein
Meatless Monday benefits are accurate for the wealthy in the global north who can afford to have meat every day, and a choice to not eat meat reduces their overall consumption. My body probably gets more than enough animal protein during the rest of the week, and a break for 24 or 48 hours might help my metabolic health. As with most things in life, balance is a benefit.
Only there is another problem.
If I assume it has taken you around 4 minutes to read this article to get to this sentence, in that 4 minutes, some 533 people have been added to the global population.
Yep, 8,000 people an hour, every hour of every day, 24/7.
Global food production must now meet a 22 trillion a day challenge just to keep all humans in food energy. Only energy is not enough; they need nutrition too.
In China, home to roughly 18% of the global population, a staggering growth in pork consumption now stands at 54 million tons annually. In the US with just 4% of the worldwide population, roughly 40 million tonnes of meat were consumed in 2021.
The numbers can be overwhelming.
The point is that population can overpower almost all suggestions for restraint.
What sustainably FED suggests
There are undeniable meatless Monday benefits.
But like most of the solutions to the feeding everyone well challenge there is more to consider in the discussion about ‘livestock are killing the planet’ than meatless Monday benefits.
Answers to the problems of environmental degradation while feeding more and more people can seem simple from the comfort of a developed economy still plump on the exogenous energy from fossils.
Only a Western worldview is increasingly naive.
Start to assess claims for yourself. Think about the evidence and put the action into context.
Then enjoy the Monday mac and cheese.
Some science sources
Enahoro, Dolapo, Mats Lannerstad, Catherine Pfeifer, and Paula Dominguez-Salas. “Contributions of Livestock-Derived Foods to Nutrient Supply under Changing Demand in Low- and Middle-Income Countries.” Global Food Security 19 (December 1, 2018): 1–10.
Panel, Malabo Montpelier. “Meat, Milk and More: Policy Innovations to Shepherd Inclusive and Sustainable Livestock Systems in Africa.” 0 ed. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2020.
FAO “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020 | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.” Accessed March 4, 2021.
Baltenweck, I., Enahoro, D., Frija, A., & Tarawali, S. (2020). Why Is Production of Animal Source Foods Important for Economic Development in Africa and Asia? Animal Frontiers, 10(4), 22–29.