The City That Goes Vegetarian ... on Thursdays

Ransom Riggs

The city of Ghent in Belgium has long been renowned for its meaty treats, especially fish and shellfish -- but now, in what appears to be an unprecedented exercise, this city of 200,000 is going vegetarian once per week. What's the big idea?

The organisers cite UN data arguing that meat production and consumption are to blame for 18% of greenhouse gases "“ more than cars. "If everyone in Flanders does not eat meat one day a week, we will save as much CO2 in a year as taking half a million cars off the road," said a spokesperson for Flanders' Ethical Vegetarian Association. "The basic premise is to introduce a way of lessening our meat consumption."

There's nothing compulsory, of course, but so far schools, hospitals and every restaurant in the city have agreed to guarantee at least one vegetarian dish every Thursday, with some of them going fully vegetarian.

The New York Times offers a few facts about how meat consumption affects the environment (despite the fact that their most popular article today is about "The Perfect Burger"):

Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world's tropical rain forests.

The world's total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284 million tons. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period. (In the developing world, it rose twice as fast, doubling in the last 20 years.) World meat consumption is expected to double again by 2050, which one expert, Henning Steinfeld of the United Nations, says is resulting in a "relentless growth in livestock production."

Growing meat (it's hard to use the word "raising" when applied to animals in factory farms) uses so many resources that it's a challenge to enumerate them all. But consider: an estimated 30 percent of the earth's ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, according to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, which also estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world's greenhouse gases — more than transportation.

On top of the environmental cost, there's also the physical cost -- there have been enough studies linking lifelong meat-eating with increased cancer rates that, in my mind at least, the connection is no longer an open question. That said, I'm not a vegetarian by any standard, but when I think about all this rationally, I kind of wish I were.

Anyone out there made the switch to veggie-hood recently? How's it going so far?