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Tasha Eichenseher – 05 Jun, 2013Tasha Eichenseher, Discover Magazine

The Meatless Monday campaign marks its tenth anniversary this year. What started as a public health push, conceived by a Mad Men-era Madison Avenue ad man, has turned into a banner effort for animal rights groups, public school systems, food companies, restaurateurs and environmental groups that all have an interest in promoting healthier, meat-free meals.

The campaign’s founder and chairman, Sid Lerner, says Meatless Monday has spread to 23 countries. And the Meatless Monday team has recently focused their attention on making inroads into China, where the population consumes about 71 million tons of meat a year.

According to some estimates, the Chinese eat twice as much meat as Americans. The upward trend in carnivorous dining in China, for the most part, corresponds to economic growth. The country’s 1.35 billion residents now consume about a quarter of all meat produced globally.

Hence Chinese meat company Shuanghui International’s interest, announced last week, in merging with America’s Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.

China has a herd of approximately 476 million pigs, about half of the total global pig population, but has been a net importer of pork since 2008, according to coverage in the Economist.

Meatless Monday President Peggy Neu recently spoke at the inaugural U.S.-China Greener Consumption Forum in D.C. about how and why to cut back.

What does Meatless Monday’s Lerner have to say about the Smithfield merger?

“Sounds like a crappy deal for both sides. The manure stays here and the pork goes there along with the high health cost of our meat-heavy diet.”

The Environmental Costs of Meat

When it comes to the environment, keeping the manure here is a significant problem. More meat on the market in general means more pollution — both through greenhouse gas emissions (from fertilizer production, machinery, and the animals themselves) and the nitrogen- (or manure-) rich runoff from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that creates water pollution and oxygen-starved deadzones. (e.g. Many of the algal blooms you see in the Chesapeake Bay and Mississippi River Delta are fed by excess fertilizer and can cause hypoxia.)

Aerial views of the Mississippi, Yangtze and Pearl River Deltas, which are all at risk of nutrient pollution from upstream agricultural operations. Photos courtesy of NASA.

Lerner and other advocates of Meatless Monday say the campaign could help curb all of this, and mean water-savings.

On average, 70 percent of the freshwater we use on the planet goes toward agricultural production. And meat is some of the most water-intensive food to produce, requiring almost 1,800 gallons to make just 1 pound of beef; nearly 575 gallons per pound of pork; and 470 gallons per pound of chicken. Most of that water is used to irrigate crops that feed the animals. A smaller portion is used in troughs to quench their thirst and to clean up bloody messes in slaughterhouses.

“The math is simple; producing meat requires a lot of water,” says Robert Lawrence, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a Meatless Monday adviser. “The conversion of feed to meat is inefficient: about 7:1 for beef, 5:1 for pork, and 2.5:1 for poultry. So, Meatless Monday has the potential of reducing the drain on increasingly scarce supplies of water by about 15 percent.”

What to eat instead? Plant protein, says Roni Neff, the director of research and policy at the Bloomberg School’s Center for a Livable Future, which works on the Meatless Monday campaign. Even grass-fed beef from cows that eat rain-irrigated forage has environmental problems when you consider that the animals are likely around longer and therefore releasing more methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gasses. (Although you probably do cut down on water use and pollution.)

The Ad Man

So how far of a reach does the Meatless Monday campaign have? Lerner says there is no good way to measure. But he does know that Sodexo, the food service provider in 6,300 cafeterias, 900 hospitals and 600 campuses that feeds an estimated 5 million Americans, participates. Baltimore public schools have been on board for the last three years, and California public schools started a program this year. And then there are efforts in those 22 other countries. “That’s progress,” says Lerner. “We never meant to be the major megaphone on this. We try to get to the people who have the megaphones to use Monday for their benefit.”

Lerner, who was behind the successful “Don’t Squeeze the Charmin” toilet paper ad campaign, may be considered a strange leader for such an endeavor. But at the age of 70 he was prescribed Lipitor and started thinking about his own dietary habits. It was then, 10 years ago, at a meeting at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore that he asked how much meat people should cut back on to reduce fat and cholesterol intake. “I said how much is too much and Dr. Bob Lawrence said the FDA and USDA say we eat about 15 percent too much,” says Lerner. “I was thankful for that specific answer because I did the arithmetic in my head and 15 percent of 21 meals came out to be three… which is one day a week, and I said ‘Great! One day a week don’t eat meat.’” When they asked what it should be called: “I remembered from WWII Roosevelt had Meatless Monday to help conserve enough food for the troops. He had picked it up from WWI, when Herbert Hoover had come up with it. “

Monday turns out to be a great day of the week for doing good. “It is a major behavioral motivator in our culture,” Lerner says. “It is the January of the week; it is when people start diets, stop smoking, start doing other things. If you screw up one Monday you can pick up again the next.” Since Meatless Monday launched, Lerner has helped to start a whole series of Monday campaigns, including Move It Monday (for exercising) and Man Up Monday (for getting tested for HIV).

“Advertising, when put to the category can really turn things around,” he adds. “We need the public health industry to not be sanctimonious and smug with their research, but to get out there and market it.”

Waterless Wednesdays?

Next on Lerner’s slate is a campaign to promote New York City’s tap water, and discourage people from drinking bottled water. The “I ♥ New York Water” effort, to start this summer, will sell re-usable water bottles “so you don’t have to buy those damn throw away bottles,” explains Lerner.

The shift from meat to water represents Lerner’s view on the resource issues more of humanity may start to face: “Think of the planet as a life raft. We’re going to get thirsty as hell before you even start missing food.”