Hiredesai: There’s something to be said for Meatless Mondays

Annika Hiredesai, Columnist

I was in high school when one of my friends started bringing colorful, plant-based meals to lunch. To my surprise, she had said sustainability and health drove her to cut out meat from her life.

I have grown up eating vegetarian two days a week and eliminating red meat from my diet. Cultural and religious values drove my eating habits, so I had never really examined plant-based diets in depth. I had a vague understanding that raising livestock harmed the environment, but I had no idea of the extent until I had this conversation.

We are told to carpool or take public transit for the sake of the environment. Since a person driving a typical car 100 miles produces 89 pounds of CO2 while a full bus emits just 14 pounds for the same distance, it seems like reasonable advice. Yet, a single serving of beef has a carbon footprint of 6.6 pounds, nearly half of the 100 mile bus ride. We need to talk about eating choices as often as we talk about modes of transportation when it comes to sustainability.

On top of a staggering contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, the maintenance of livestock is incredibly wasteful.When you move up a level in the food chain, say from alfalfa grass to a cow, only 10 percent of the energy is transferred from the original food source. This means that the livestock we consume is 90 percent less energy efficient than the plants they are raised on. As a result, a third of the planet’s farmland is being used to cultivate livestock crops.

Raising livestock also takes immense quantities of water, with a pound of beef taking nearly 1,800 gallons to produce. Given that estimates suggest the world food supply needs to double and at least 6 billion people won’t have access to clean water by 2050, these inefficiencies of biomass are inexcusable.

In addition to the collective responsibility, there are a host of individual reasons to cut back on meat. Processed meats have been classified by the World Health Organization as Group 1 carcinogens, known causes of cancer. Red meat is up there too as a probable cause of cancer with its Group 2A classification.

Other types of meat aren’t necessarily better. Research has shown that following a meat-heavy western diet placed individuals at higher risk for chronic diseases. Given that the leading cause of death in America is heart disease, the association between meat intake and arterial plaque formation is particularly concerning.

If this was your first time hearing all of this, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed and maybe a tad nihilistic. That’s okay. Here’s the good news. When it comes to seeing results, a little change goes a long way. It just has to be consistent and collective.

Kathy Freston, author and wellness activist, helped illuminate the quantifiable differences that could be made if Americans gave up meat for a day: 70 million gallons of gasoline, 1.5 billion pounds of crops, and 100 billion gallons of water. And that’s just a one-off 24 hour period. When it comes to nutrition, studies suggest that incorporating plant-based foods on small scales can still have an impact. In a study that followed individuals at high cardiovascular risk, participants with pro-vegetarian eating habits—not necessarily strict vegetarians—had decreased mortality for cardiovascular and noncardiovascular causes of death.

I’ve been adhering to Meatless Mondays my whole life without giving it much thought. Knowing what I know now, I’m proud of the impact my individual choices have had, and I’m excited to see what else I can contribute moving forward. Whatever you end up doing, it is important that you find something that works for your life and that you can stick with. When you’re in it for the long-haul, your choices can truly make a difference.

Annika Hiredesai is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.