The vast body of evidence supporting the health benefits of a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) dietary lifestyle is nearly overwhelming. However, many consumers remain equally, if not more, motivated by their desire to promote animal welfare or support more sustainable food systems. The evidence supporting these motivations is also almost irrefutable. On sustainability, “[Reduced meat consumption is] likely to have the most significant and immediate impact on making diets more sustainable.” That goes for environmental well-being, economic sustainability, and social justice.
As awareness of the numerous benefits of reduced meat consumption has increased, organized movements promoting gradual dietary change have become commonplace. Likewise, these movements—referred to by researchers as less meat initiatives (LMIs)—help increase awareness. There are many examples of such campaigns. They include Meat-Free Mondays in the UK and Meatless Mondays in the US. Although they vary in scope and level of formal organization, they can be found worldwide, from school cafeterias to houses of parliament to hospitals, business canteens, and even municipalities.
One of the more impressive examples is the city of Ghent, Belgium, which has, in fewer than 15 years, successfully transformed its reputation from a meat-loving place into a world-renowned veggie haven. Their investment in free cooking classes and workshops for students, parents, and local chefs has supported a groundswell of enthusiasm and curiosity for plant-based eating, and many restaurants have jumped on board the movement. As of 2017, Ghent had the most vegetarian restaurants per capita in the world, with more than 50 percent of the city reportedly observing vegetarianism for the day (according to polls, people who take part in Ghent’s meatless day end up adhering to a vegetarian diet for an average of three days per week). Participating restaurants include many cuisines and price points—from buffets popular among local university students to an award-winning Michelin star restaurant serving a seven-course “pure vegetables menu.”
Even more cities have since launched similar initiatives, and LMIs have successfully entered into the mainstream. But how effective are they? Are Ghent’s successes proof of things to come, or were there particular circumstances in the city that have made it a better host? Zooming out to a more general question—even in successful cases, are the changes substantial or rapid enough to create a truly sustainable food system? What lessons can we learn from the successes and challenges of these movements?
The History of Awareness and Cessation Campaigns
The origin of Meatless Mondays—the most well-known LMI based in the United States—dates more than a century past. When future president Herbert Hoover headed up the newly formed Food Administration during World War I, he started a campaign on the home front to encourage citizens to cut down on consumption. This effort included Meatless Tuesdays and Wheatless Wednesdays, resulting in a 15 percent reduction in consumption from 1918–1919. A lifetime later, in 2003, Sid Lerner and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future resuscitated the campaign we are familiar with today.
The alliterative Meatless Mondays is catchier than the original Meatless Tuesdays, but there’s another good reason for the shift: research on circaseptan (weekly) rhythms from the past few years suggests that people are most likely to contemplate cessation and health at the beginning of the week. Not only is Monday ideal as the beginning of the routine work week, but it may also be when many people feel most motivated to confront the effects of the weekend’s excesses.
Beyond diet, have there been similar campaigns? Sure enough, there have been. The decades-old Great American Smokeout, one of the most well-known awareness campaigns of the past century, provides a few lessons that LMIs might learn from. Hosted by the American Cancer Society on the third Thursday of November, the campaign encourages smokers to go without tobacco for one day; the goal is to raise awareness about the effects of smoking and encourage users to consider giving up the habit altogether. (More recently, San Francisco’s Vegetarian Society has organized a Meat Out day, explicitly drawing a parallel to the familiar Smokeout to emphasize that giving up animal foods is a good cause for individuals and society.)
Unfortunately, assessing the effectiveness of campaigns like the Great American Smokeout is tricky. In 2016, researchers used a novel big data approach to evaluate it; they found that the movement’s date corresponded with increased news coverage and “help seeking” on Google, Wikipedia, and smoking quitlines. However, as they noted, increases in online help-seeking can only translate to positive change if the quality of information online is high. “Given the frequency with which smokers seek and find dubious cessation treatments online,” the pathway to evidence-based assistance must be clear. They also suggest highlighting different content each year to help the campaign gain more attention.
Granted, removing animal foods from the diet presents different challenges from quitting smoking, but campaigns focused on dietary change might learn from counterpart smoking campaigns. For instance, by highlighting the many unique reasons for giving up meat—health, environment, animal welfare, etc.—rather than focusing on one, LMIs might gain more attention and, ultimately, support. (This is something some LMIs already seem to do well.) Likewise, the quality of information online is a major limiting factor for the success of LMIs, for there is far more confusion about nutrition online than there is about smoking.
Smoking, after all, has a many-decades-long head start on nutrition: the unhealthy food industry today is still successfully re-using the very same playbook the tobacco industry did 60–70 years ago by systematically creating confusion in the marketplace, undermining valid studies, and funding their own “expert” opinions. New Zealand researcher Janet Hoek analyzes evidence of Big Tobacco’s underhanded strategies and suggests that we could never challenge the industry successfully until the state intervened. She concludes: “Far from removing free choice, government policies that restrain commercial communications and stimuli are prerequisites necessary to promote free choice.”
But putting aside the case for policy changes that might finally hold industry to account (a subject we will return to later), is the moderate approach enough? Does a Meatless Monday or Veganuary do enough to provoke sweeping changes, given how pressing the crises associated with animal-based foods are today?
Successes and Shortcomings of a Moderate Approach
Proponents of the flexitarian or reducetarian movements suggest that cutting down is more likely to succeed because it is far easier for most consumers than eliminating all animal foods. Yes—cutting back is better than doing nothing. As the surveys in Ghent suggest, removing one day of meat consumption can eventually lead to more days. And if everyone in the UK adopted Meat-Free Monday, it would result in more carbon savings than taking five million cars off the road, not to mention the many other environmental, social, and health benefits. (Incidentally, there were about 33 million passenger cars in the UK in 2020, meaning that if they ditched meat entirely, they would achieve carbon savings greater than taking every single passenger car off the road.)
One concern, however, is the problematic framing at the outset of some LMIs. To illustrate, consider the stated purpose of the investigation cited above: “The aim of this article is to [. . .] explore [LMIs’] potential to contribute to a transition towards a more sustainable system of meat provisioning.” Given the inherent inefficiencies of animal agriculture, surely the goal should be to transition toward a sustainable system—period—not just a more moderate system of meat provisioning. In Cape Town, South Africa, the coordinator of their meat-free day says: “Eliminating meat from your diet for one day a week will result in a saving [. . . that] can be used to buy healthier and more humane free-range meat.” Again, is this the victory we should be aiming for? Can we not achieve more?
Finally, there is evidence that while LMIs do raise awareness and stimulate debate, their demands, measured as they might be, might be too radical to translate into mainstream adoption. There have even been a few instances of vehement protest against the introduction of meat-free days. In the UK, the Green Party in Brighton tried to implement a meat-free day in the town council’s catering outlets but had to backtrack almost immediately due to backlash from the town’s “disgusted” refuse collectors.
How Can We Support or Improve LMIs?
The Brighton example illustrates a critical point: LMIs are far likelier to succeed when individuals and institutions feel they can opt in and take responsibility for the changes. On the other hand, when the initiative feels like an imposition, it is far likelier to fail. It’s no surprise that participants want to feel like they have agency and are creating something new and exciting—as seems to be the case in Ghent.
A 2020 article by a group of predominantly British researchers highlights four priorities for a successful food purchasing or consumption intervention:
- Minimise disruption [. . .]
- Sell a compelling benefit [. . .]
- Maximise awareness [. . . and]
- Help shift norms
How well do most LMIs integrate these goals? In an article cited earlier, in which researchers relied on a diffusion analysis framework—analyzing how ideas, practices, or policies spread—the researchers suggested that LMIs excel at the third of these priorities: maximizing awareness. As a consequence of increasing awareness, they probably also help to shift norms such that meatless options seem less like a fringe choice. However, to be even more effective, there should be an emphasis on the other two priorities.
A minimally disruptive intervention is affordable, tasty, and preferably familiar. Ideally, meatless options would be cheaper than animal-based choices and LMIs would stress their convenience and taste. Toward this end, processed meat substitutes might bridge the gap to healthier whole food, plant-based (WFPB) options. However, relying on less healthy meat alternatives risks underselling the full potential of dietary lifestyle change. Education remains crucial for selling the benefits of plant-based lifestyles. That includes teaching nutrition, the impact of our choices, and how to implement change. Remember, Ghent has invested thousands of dollars to provide free cooking classes to its residents.
Finally, we should maybe reassess our expectations for what LMIs can and should achieve. We need to be realistic about the limitations of such campaigns, which tend to place the brunt of the responsibility on individuals rather than addressing broken systems. Although well-intentioned, this focus on the individual can only get us so far as long as powerful industries (food and pharmaceutical) and the government promote unsustainably high levels of meat consumption through a combination of agricultural subsidies, corruptible dietary guidelines, and media control. The previously cited article on the tobacco industry’s decades-old strategies proves that focusing on individual choice alone is not likely to be enough. Policy changes are essential despite corporate America’s tendency to fearmonger about the “nanny state.”
We should be mindful of how powerful actors maintaining this status quo—described as a “meatonomic” system—appropriate the language of free choice while artificially manipulating market conditions. It would be naive to expect confused, disempowered individual consumers whose doctors are undereducated about the value of nutrition to consistently make truly free choices. We’re not even paying what we should for our choices. “When negative externalities are factored in, such as the cost of environmental and human health consequences of animal agriculture and meat consumption, the true cost of animal agriculture is much higher than what most consumers pay,” and yet the meatonomic system continues to maintain the farce of free choice. Even just changing the default layout of a menu modifies the decisions consumers make: researchers have found that placing vegetarian meals at the top of a menu increases purchases by 6 percent.
Turning Meatless Days and Months Into WFPB Years
The livestock industry in the UK has contested LMIs, and several years ago, the communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance remarked that these campaigns are “something to watch,” which suggests they are causing at least some alarm. Furthermore, the need for such a movement has arguably never been higher, given out-of-control healthcare costs, environmental crises left and right, and multiple epidemics of diet-related diseases.
However, there remains a lack of clarity about the effectiveness of these initiatives. Is their primary purpose to provoke lasting change or to raise awareness? The latter is not a guarantee of the former. And if their goal is to transform the global diet, are the changes they advocate for substantial enough? Given that red meat intake is 300–600 percent higher than recommended levels in Europe and the Americas, to give an example, perhaps we require a more radical approach.
It all depends on us—how do we choose to view the goals of such campaigns? Are they the early steps toward eradicating animal products from the diet or only a step toward moderately less unsustainable meat provisioning? Are we pairing them with policy changes that disincentivize unsustainable production and consumption?
As the aphorism goes, we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The growing popularity of these initiatives is nothing to sneer at. They indicate a potentially powerful curiosity and enthusiasm. And in the most successful cases, as in Ghent, they are an exciting step in the right direction. But we must not mistake steps for destinations. To ensure Meatless Mondays don’t go the way of Wheatless Wednesdays, confined to the history books, their goals must become the cornerstones of lifestyles, not fads.
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