Can a Day Without Meat Cut a City's Carbon Footprint?

Can a Day Without Meat Cut a City's Carbon Footprint?

The Belgian city of Ghent has launched a plan to "go vegetarian" one day a week as a way of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with meat production.

It's the sort of event that must make PETA proud: the city of Ghent, Belgium, has just started its first "Veggie Day," encouraging the city's residents and restaurants to go meat-free one day a week, for the sake of the planet.

By skipping the beef, pork, chicken or fish, the Flanders' Ethical Vegetarian Association -- one of the groups promoting the event -- projects that the city can cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent for that day.

A report by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization published in late 2006 found a host of environmental issues attributable to meat production: not just the resulting 18 percent of GHGs (including gases more potent than carbon dioxide, like methane, which is 23 times as warming as CO2, and nitrous oxide, which is 296 times as warming), but also the huge amount of land devoted to raising livestock and feed for livestock -- 33 percent of the world's arable land -- and the water pollution issues from livestock, especially from concentrated animal feedlot operations (also known as CAFOs, or factory farms).

The soon-to-be occasionally-meat-free city of Ghent. Photo CC-licensed by Flickr user _Skender_. Ghent

More recently, the February 2009 issue of Scientific American magazine published an article that said beef production causes 57 times the GHG emissions as potato production, and 13 times the GHGs as chicken production.
Add to all these environmental issues the concerns about human health, labor and animal welfare as a result of industrial meat production, and there's plenty of justification for Ghent's meat-free Thursdays.

From an article by Ian Traynor in the Guardian:

The city council says it is the first town in Europe and probably the western world to try to make the entire place vegetarian for a day every week. Tom Balthazar, the Labour party councillor pushing the scheme, said: "There's nothing compulsory. We just want to be a city that promotes sustainable and healthy living."

Every restaurant in the city is to guarantee a vegetarian dish on the menu, with some going fully vegetarian every Thursday. From September, the city's schools are to make a meat-free meal the "default" option every Thursday, although parents can insist on meat for their children. At least one hospital wants to join in.

Now, I've been meat-free for just shy of 10 years (hard to believe it's been that long -- I still remember vividly the last meat I ate, a surprisingly tofu-like serving of fish pudding in Røros, Norway), so this kind of news seems utterly logical to me. But I'd guess it's not quite as easy a sell as I'd expect. So I'd love to hear from our readers: given all the research about how a meat-based diet impacts the environment, have you considered giving up any or all meat for any length of time?

Oh, and by the way, if you happen to be in Ghent, on a Thursday or any other day, here's a handy list of some of the city's vegetarian-friendly restaurants....

Cow photo CC-licensed by Flickr user me'nthedogs.