Skip to main content

'Meatless Monday' too hot a potato for USDA

By Ben Grossman-Cohen, Special to CNN
August 2, 2012 -- Updated 1150 GMT (1950 HKT)
Beef cattle are sold at an auction. Oxfam says cutting out meat significantly reduces use of water, oil, land and other resources.
Beef cattle are sold at an auction. Oxfam says cutting out meat significantly reduces use of water, oil, land and other resources.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • USDA's newsletter suggesting employees forgo meat once a week causes uproar
  • Ben Grossman-Cohen: Meat industry, politicians slam USDA, so it backs off
  • It takes huge amounts of land, water, fertilizer, oil to produce meat, he writes
  • He says eating less meat reduces use of resources and ensures everyone gets fed

Editor's note: Ben Grossman-Cohen is press officer for Oxfam America's GROW Campaign, which aims to build a food system that sustainably feeds a growing population.

(CNN) -- For the sorcerers who practice the dark arts of politics, the hot summer months are generally known for their focus on triviality, hyperbole and petty posturing. This "silly season" is marked mostly by frivolous debates over manufactured controversies as voters tune out and cook out in parks and backyards across the country.

So it comes as no surprise that the latest bit of feigned outrage to embroil the United States Department of Agriculture involves an interoffice newsletter recommending that employees consider taking a modest stab at common sense.

Joining the ranks of thousands of companies, restaurants, schools, average Americans and Oprah, a recent newsletter from the USDA made a humble suggestion for its employees to reduce their environmental footprints: Consider eating a meat-free lunch once per week. The agency was referring to "Meatless Monday," a project of Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Syracuse universities and supported by many other health-related organizations.

After angry press releases from the meat industry and outraged tweets from Republicans in Congress, a USDA spokeswoman announced the agency does not endorse the "Meatless Monday" initiative and said the suggestion was posted on the agency's website "without proper clearance." Problem solved, I guess.

Ben Grossman-Cohen
Ben Grossman-Cohen

But the rationale behind an idea like "Meatless Monday" is crystal clear. It's exactly the kind of step USDA should be endorsing. The reality is that it takes massive amounts of land, water, fertilizer, oil and other resources to produce meat, significantly more than it requires to grow other nutritious and delicious kinds of food. Because meat production is so resource intensive, livestock farming actually accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle farming alone consumes nearly 8% of global human water use.

My own organization, Oxfam, an international relief and development organization, recently endorsed the idea of eating less meat and dairy as part of our GROW campaign to fight global hunger. We did a study and found that if a family of four decided to swap burgers or other beef for lentils just one meal a week, they could save about 12½ Olympic-size swimming pools of fresh water over the course of a year. If that seems like an astronomically large amount of water for such a small change, it's because it is.

Meatless Mondays might seem like an unlikely cause for a humanitarian organization to champion. But Oxfam is working on this issue because as diets around the world change and the population swells to 9 billion over the coming decades, our planet will need to produce up to 70% more food even as we use fewer resources.

If we don't reduce our environmental footprints as we increase production, poor people, particularly women, will be the first to suffer. Eating less meat is a simple way to reduce the pressure on global resources and help ensure that everyone has enough to eat. To say it simply, eating less meat helps fight hunger.

The meat industry would argue that eating less meat would damage the bottom line of American farmers. But farmers are already struggling just to keep up with the spiking global demand for meat, which experts predict could nearly double by 2050. Eating less meat could help slow this unsustainable increase, but U.S. farms won't suffer as a result.

Swapping out meat just once per week would also help reduce the emissions that are contributing to climate change and extreme weather. Farmers across the United States are facing the worst drought in a generation, leading the USDA to declare 1,369 counties in 31 states as disaster areas.

The weather has caused massive crop failures, driving a significant spike in the price of corn. While it may be hard to know exactly what role climate change has played in causing the drought, there is no doubt that these kinds of events are exactly what we expect to experience more frequently and with greater severity because of the changing climate.

Our study looked at what would happen if urban and suburban households in just four countries -- the United States, United Kingdom, Spain and Brazil -- decided to swap beef for lentils just once a week. We found that the emissions reductions from this tiny step alone would be the equivalent of taking 3.7 million cars off the road for a year.

Sadly, facts like these are not enough to avoid the silly season altogether, or to persuade the USDA to ignore the self-serving indignation of the meat industry and keep a reasonable suggestion on its site.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ben Grossman-Cohen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT