Meat the Flexitarians

Cats make wonderful pets, and petite, fluffy, house decorations. But as much as I adore cats, there is something special about owning a pet cow. Sathya (that is my cow's name) spends his afternoons grazing on my grandmother's lawn in a tiny lagoon village in Sri Lanka. He has brown, soulful eyes, and a voracious appetite for ripe bananas. He was also bought from an abattoir—waiting, a mere shadow of a soul beating through his malnourished frame, for what would have been his imminent death.

Sathya is the reason I choose not to eat beef. Sathya is the reason why I skip the roast beef entrée on Mondays, and do not indulge in the “less meat” offered by Harvard University Dining Service's recent initiative "Less Meat Monday" (which offers two vegetarian entrées on Mondays instead of one). Yet the HUDS initiative echoes another campaign, a campaign that we should certainly consider committing to fully —"Meatless Monday.”

The notion of "meatless meals" has been a topic that has stirred or preoccupied the minds of many Harvard students, dating back to 1975. In fact, the past few years have seen a considerable increase in the number of people who turn to “flexitarianism,” a diet that maintains the benefits of vegetarianism by requiring only a reduction, and not an omission, of meat consumption.

Meatless Monday, an initiative of The Monday Campaigns and Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, was set up in 2003 with the aim of decreasing meat consumption by 15 percent. Their campaign has since had a global ripple effect, sprouting similar initiatives in countries such as France and Korea. Their motivation for the avoidance of meat goes beyond the traditional reasoning of lessening the risk of preventable diseases and conditions. They barely touch on ethical issues. Instead, Meatless Monday turns our attention to the toxic effects of the meat industry on the environment.

In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization released an unsettling report called “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” exposing the environmental consequences of consuming meat and urging for a safer, less harmful diet. The report states that livestock are responsible for at least 18 percent of the greenhouse gases linked to climate change. However, an article in World Watch Magazine suggests that this number may be underestimated; that the total percentage of GHG emissions appears closer to 51 percent.

Further environmental damage is generated through the meat industry's drainage of resources. Over 8 percent of the world's fresh water supply is being depleted to rear livestock. Between 20-70 percent of land has also been degraded due to overgrazing and erosion. Thus, deforestation and other land exploitations, fossil fuel consumption, the substantial drainage of the world's fresh water supply, and the large release of greenhouse gases have led to the UN’s declaration of the livestock sector as being “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

Yet even as our resources dwindle, Oxfam suggests that the approaching decades will generate a need for up to 70 percent more produce due to a growing population, and thus an effective shift in our diet is required if we want to protect our environment, as well as feed a burgeoning society. One way of tackling this issue is by reducing the amount of meat we consume. But with meat farmers expecting to double their production by 2050, the chances of an efficacious shift occurring appear slim.

However an even greater cause for concern is this: When a recent interoffice newsletter advising employees to consider adopting the Meatless Monday diet circulated within the United States Department of Agriculture, it caused an outcry from meat producers and government officials. It comes as no surprise that in the face of tweets by meat farmers and congressmen alike, the USDA released a statement that they in no way endorse Meatless Monday; that the advice was posted "without proper clearance." Clearly, shunning support for a meat-reduced diet, which would engender personal health and environmental benefits, consolidates their mission statement of “improving nutrition and health by providing food assistance and nutrition education and promotion."

Without official backing, converting to a more meat-free intake is also rendered less persuasive because of the public interest in low-carb diets. Diets such as Atkins that stress reducing carbohydrate intake deter people from removing meat from their diet. However, recent studies show that the optimal diet is not one that is rich in proteins, but one that includes fewer unhealthy carbs, fat, red meat and processed foods. Eating vegetables, fruits, and other plant produce leads to numerous health benefits and even weight loss.

And if you are still feeling a little hesitant about completely throwing away that old, discoloring Big Mac in your refrigerator and becoming vegetarian, you could consider flexitarianism, which has been highlighted as one of 2012's top five consumer health trends. The Meatless Monday initiative is definitely one worth adopting, and the looming threats bred by the intake of meat make me second-guess my decision to slather bacon onto a plate during Sunday brunch. But will it overcome all the factors holding it back and finally convince me to commit? Perhaps it requires the further purchase of a pet chicken and a pet pig.

Casi S. Karunaratne ’15 is a Crimson editorial comper in Lowell House.

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